The brand name Spam, used for a potted meat product made by the Hormel Corporation, is a blend of spiced + ham. It was trademarked in 1937 and appears in the Official Gazette of the US Patent office on 26 October of that year:
Geo. A. Hormel & Company, Austin, Minn...Spam...For Canned Meats—Namely, Spiced Ham. Claims use since May 11, 1937.
Or at least that’s the usual and most likely explanation. There is a slightly different explanation that appears in the 1 July 1937 issue of Squeal magazine:
In the last month Geo. A. Hormel & Co...launched the product Spam...The ‘think-up’ of the name credited to Kenneth Daigneau, New York actor...Seems as if he had considered the word a good memorable trade-name for some time, had only waited for a product to attach it to.
If this is true, then Hormel chose the name and then came up with a suitable excuse for using it.
But spam has another meaning in the electronic age, that of off-topic commercial posts to Usenet message boards or unsolicited commercial e-mail. How did the name of a potted meat product come to have this new sense?
The transition from meat product to internet term has a stop with Monty Python’s Flying Circus. In 1970, that BBC comedy show aired a sketch that featured a cafe that served Spam with every dish:
Mrs. Bun: I don’t want any spam.
Mr. Bun: Why can’t she have egg, bacon, spam and sausage?
Mrs. Bun: That’s got spam in it!
Mr. Bun: Not as much as spam, egg, sausage, and spam.
Mrs. Bun: Look, could I have egg, bacon, spam and sausage without the spam.
To make matters sillier, the cafe was filled with Vikings who periodically break out into song praising Spam:
Spam, spam, spam, spam ... lovely spam, wonderful spam ...
By 1987, computer users adopted the term to mean an unwanted commercial plug, something unwanted but unavoidable, like the meat product in the Python sketch. From a post to the Usenet group comp.sys.amiga on 23 October 1987:
This article contains a *little* bit of Spam. :-) Dirty Vikings!
The comment about Vikings ties it back to the Python sketch.
There are two common alternative explanations that are certainly false. The first is that it refers to a quality of the meat product such that when you throw it at a wall, most of it bounces off, but a little sticks—much like commercial spam, most of which is deleted but some is answered. While this is no more silly than the Monty Python explanation, it does not jibe with the original computer sense of overloading a buffer.
The second false explanation is that the computer spam is an acronym of some sort. Various phrases are suggested as the source, such as “stupid pointless annoying mail.” All are obviously created after the fact.
(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Usenet: comp.sys.amiga; Monty Python’s Flying Circus: All The Words)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton