Posted by Bob on July 14, 2007
In Reply to: Ham posted by Mandy on July 14, 2007
: Where does the expression "he's a ham" come from? Why a "ham"?
It's a mid-19th C. invention, apparently from a popular minstrel. I found this fro The Word Detective:
The Word Detective
By Evan Morris
Copyright 2000 by Evan Morris
For Release: Friday, May 12, 2000
Dear Word Detective: My best friend, who is an actor, and I would love to
know the origin of the word "ham," referring to someone who overacts. --
Steve Tabor, via the internet.
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.