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Derivation of "Ham Actor"

Posted by ESC on January 07, 2000

In Reply to: Derivation of "Ham Actor" posted by Mary on January 06, 2000

: I know I read/heard once that Hams were originally called Ham Fatters in Shakespeare's day, and that the phrase referred more to their being less than the best, not supported by the crown, as the King's Players were, and having to use ham fat to mix or remove their makeup. Further descriptions welcomed.

I looked in three reference books and got three slightly different "takes" on the origin of "ham actor." So I'm going to list all three and let the Phrase Finder folks sort it all out:

From Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, 1997) with asides from Mr. Hendrickson in parenthesis: "HAM. Actors prefer to think that the word derives from the old theatrical use of ham fat to remove blackface makeup - actors were thus called hamfatters, or hams. Many scholars lean to this theory, but 'ham' in the sense of an amateur actor or a 10th rate actor who outrageously overplays his scenes has enough folk etymologies to make a one-act play. Since none really seems capable of absolute proof, I'll simply list three: 1) Ham derives from the Cockney slang 'hamateur,' for 'amateur actor.' (Unlikely, as the term 'ham' in this sense is American from about 1880.) 2) The word structure of 'amateur' itself suggested 'ham.' (A good possibility, but why did it wait so long to suggest itself?) 3) It comes from the role of 'Hamlet,' which actors frequently misperformed. (Another good possibility, but, if so, 'ham' should have been with us since Shakespeare's time.) 'Ham' for one of the rear quarters of a hog, or its meat, derives from Old English 'hamm' for the bend of the knee."

From the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, 1977, 1988): "HAM ACTOR. 'Ham in this phrase has two distinct meanings. First, probably by analogy to 'amateur,' there is the use of 'ham' to mean an actor who is incompetent or unskilled. That's the meaning intended in such phrases as 'Hollywood hams.' Then there is 'ham' in the sense of one who overacts or outrageously overplays a scene - especially when his intention is to center all attention on himself to the exclusion of other players. Such devices as upstaging other actors, grimacing at the audience and pointedly fiddling with one's pocket handkerchief during another player's speech are common practices of actors bent on 'hamming it up.' In the days of blackface minstrel shows before the turn of the century, one popular song was 'The Hamfat Man' and it clearly referred to second-rate actors of the type that appeared in such shows. But nobody knows for sure whether the song inspired the name 'hamfatter' for these actors or whether the name preceded the song. We think that the name came before the song, probably from the minstrel's practice of using ham fat to remove the heavy black makeup used during performances. In any event, ham actor is an American expression which made its first appearance in print during the 1880s."

From "The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology: The Origin of American English Words" by Robert W. Barnhart (HarperCollins 1995) "HAM. n. performer. 1882. American English, apparently a shortened form of 'hamfatter' , an actor of low grade, said to be from an old minstrel song 'The Ham-fat Man.' The idea amateurish was extended to a amateur telegraphist and an amateur radio operator ."

Of course, there are other theories on the origin of the word "ham" for radio operators. But I'm stopping for now.