A Brief History of Spam – Why Do We Call It Spam?

Written by Casper Manes on March 4, 2013

baseballcapIf you’ve spent any time at all as a IT professional, you know that your colleagues have what to outsiders could only be considered a bizarre sense of humour, and will often latch on to memes and other pop culture references that seem to remain funny for long after they should have faded to ignominy. Take, for example, the Harlem Shake, planking, or even this one. Yes, yes I did. Sorry. This time honoured tradition goes back to the earliest days of computers, and the story of why Unsolicited Commercial Email is called spam.

In 1970, the fledging ARPANET had not yet hit its first real growth spurt and had only four connected nodes. On the other hand, British sketch comedy was enjoying its golden age, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus was one of the best shows on BBC One. At the end of one episode, the comic troop performed a sketch in a restaurant where two patrons wanted to order breakfast, and practically every item on the menu came with spam, a canned meat product. The woman of the couple apparently did not like spam and became rather vocal in her objections, while the man seemed to think nothing was wrong. Throughout, a group of Vikings would interject with song, and, well, if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out, and need to go see it for yourself to really understand what was happening.

Between the thousands of times the word spam was mentioned in the sketch, and that proto-spammers in MUDs sometimes used lines from the sketch to overwhelm others, the verb “spamming” was born. MUDs were multi-user dungeons, a successor to the early chat room, and veteran users would often paste in large numbers of messages to either block out others, or to force their comments to scroll of the screen. Quotes from the Monty Python sketch about spam and other sketches were frequently used, since geeks being geeks they all loved Python (the comics, not the language.) There’s even a story of one user programming a macro to just repeat the word spam again and again. By popular convention, the actions of these users came to be called spamming, and the product of their efforts spam. It was a short hop from these early Internet communications forms to similarly wasteful USENET postings, and then to email.

Of course, the Hormel Meat Company product Spam (note the capital S) predates all of this. The Spiced Ham in a can product first came out in 1937 and has sold over 7 billion cans of the different varieties since then. Hormel has unsuccessfully tried legal actions against several anti-spam products over the years in an attempt to protect its trademark or image, but seems only to object when spam capitalised, as they maintain that is their trademark. By accepted convention, Spam is the tasty canned meat, and spam is the garbage that fills our inboxes.

And finally, just in case you are one of the approximately .004% of IT professionals who are not familiar with the genius that is Monty Python, here’s the skit that is commonly considered the inspiration for calling junkmail spam. Make sure you read the credits at the end!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anwy2MPT5RE

Comments

Rosey March 6, 2013

Being a keep Monty Python fan, I knew where spam came – I think even the episode itself had the word “spam” in it. Nevertheless, I feel kind of sorry for the canned meat – it got such a bad name without deserving it.

Amy March 22, 2013

Gotcha! Somehow I thought it had something to do with spam the meat. Now it’s confirmed. That’s a very interesting tidbit you got there. But what I’m more interested in is how it became mainstream and found its way into IT vocabulary. Sure, the sketch was a perfect analogy of IT spam, but for someone who doesn’t have any e-mail at that time, the story would appear as one of those comedies. It wouldn’t mean such a thing to them. So maybe someone from ARPANET saw it and used it to describe their system to their colleagues, and since people couldn’t really keep a secret, the word was just passed on?

Agnes March 25, 2013

Well, Spam isn’t good for you either.  Besides, I think people have already been comfortable about calling both the food and the e-mail problem of the same name. Anyway, these types of articles are a breath of fresh air. I don’t know how these topics on history can truly help in getting rid of spam the email problem, but they are fun facts. It’s nice to learn something new. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, geeky guys come up with the most unusual or funniest names for anything IT.

Almond Gabriel April 2, 2013

Monty Python! I love everything about Monty Python! I forgot about this bit, though. So, thank you for bringing back the memory to me. I’m sure a lot of people will be surprised to find out the real story of the spam we don’t like (not the canned one, of course!). But I share Amy’s thoughts. I wonder how it became mainstream and how people came to know about it. I’m sure that’s another interesting story!
Please keep telling us more about the beginnings of spam. A little idea about its beginnings can be helpful in the fight against it!

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