Posted by Bruce Kahl on October 22, 2001

In Reply to: Ham posted by Winfield on October 22, 2001

: Does anyone know the origin of ham as used in "ham it up", "be a ham"?

The following is a cut/paster from the "Word Detective":

"Unfortunately, no one knows exactly where "ham," meaning an inept, usually grossly melodramatic, actor comes from. We do know that the term "ham" first appeared in the mid-19th century meaning "clumsy and stupid fellow," and acquired its theatrical meaning later, around 1881.

The "clumsy" sense of "ham" may well be a shortening of "ham-handed" or "ham-fisted," both describing persons (especially boxers) so clumsy that their hands are as useless as hams.

It is possible that the acting "ham" springs from the same source, but it also appears to be connected to an earlier term, "hamfatter," which appeared around 1879 meaning an incompetent actor or musician. Theories about "hamfatter" tend to be vague and more than a little confusing. "Hamfat" was used in the early 20th century both as an epithet for African-Americans and a general synonym for "an amateur." There was also apparently a popular minstrel song titled "The Hamfat Man," endless inept performances of which may have strengthened the use of "hamfat" as a synonym for a poor performer.

Another theory posits that low-paid performers, unable to afford expensive oils and creams, had to make do with actual ham fat as a base when applying their makeup. But especially given the non-theatrical uses of "hamfatter" around the turn of the century, this theory strikes me as overly elaborate and unlikely. My guess is that all roads lead back to "ham fat" being used as a metaphor for something useless and of low quality, a poor substitute for the real thing (presumably ham).

Incidentally, the designation of amateur radio operators as "hams" also apparently reflects the old "clumsy" sense of the slang term "ham." According to the American Radio Relay League, in the early days of ship-to-shore radio, commercial operators would often complain of interference from amateur operators, referring to them disparagingly as "hams." Amateur operators eventually adopted "ham" as their own term, and today it has lost its derogatory connotations in the radio field."