Wonderful spam

In the mail from Chris Ambidge, a 1940s ad for Spam, seen in a color version here:

(This is intransitive get up ‘(a)rise from bed’, of course, not get up ‘become erect’.) The delight of the ad is its enthusiasm for Spam.

Another period ad, with the very same plate of eggs and Spam, but from a different angle:

Now we have the transitive verb-particle combination get up, with the intended meaning ’cause to (a)rise from bed’, though modern readers might well take it as ’cause to become erect’, so that the ad is unintentionally funny. The sexual sense is quite common these days, as in this sad blog comment:

My husband has little to no sex drive. I’ve tried talking about it, NOT talking about it, lingerie, exercise, oral sex (me to him), manual stimulation… nothing gets him interested. Occassionally I’ll get him up enough for intercourse, but he seems to have no DESIRE. (link)

What I haven’t (yet) been able to find out is when the sexual sense became current. Would the ad have been a double entendre back when it appeared?

But on to Spam, Spam, wonderful Spam. In its first cites for the trade name, OED2 gives two somewhat different accounts of the origin of the name:

 The proprietary name of a type of tinned meat consisting chiefly of pork; also (with lower-case initial) applied loosely to other types of tinned luncheon meat.

1937    Squeal 1 July 1/2   In the last month Geo. A. Hormel & Co. ..launched the product Spam. ..The ‘think-up’ of the name [is] 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.

1937    Official Gaz. (U.S. Patent Office) 26 Oct. 750/2   Geo. A. Hormel & Company, Austin, Minn. ..Spam..For Canned Meats—Namely, Spiced Ham. Claims use since May 11, 1937.

(The second account treats the brand name as a portmanteau.)

That’s chapter 1 in the story. Chapter 2 comes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and its well-known Spam sketch, charmingly excerpted in this drawing by the artist known as Kalidiscope on the deviantART site:

(The Lobster Thermidor finale is fabulous.)

Now to chapter 3, recounted in this OED2 draft addition of March 2001:

Computing slang. Usu. in form spam.  [Compare spam v. 2.] Originally: irrelevant or inappropriate postings to an Internet newsgroup, esp. messages sent to a large number of newsgroups simultaneously, often for advertising purposes; an act or instance of sending such messages. Now chiefly: similar unsolicited electronic mail, esp. when sent to individuals as part of a mass-mailing. [cites from early ’90s]

The Wikipedia entry for spam in the electronic sense supplies the transition from chapter 2 to chapter 3:

According to the Internet Society and other sources, the term spam is derived from the 1970 Spam sketch of the BBC television comedy series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. The sketch is set in a cafe where nearly every item on the menu includes Spam canned luncheon meat. As the waiter recites the Spam-filled menu, a chorus of Viking patrons drowns out all conversations with a song repeating “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam… lovely Spam! wonderful Spam!”, hence “Spamming” the dialogue.The excessive amount of Spam mentioned in the sketch is a reference to the preponderance of imported canned meat products in the United Kingdom, particularly corned beef from Argentina, in the years after World War II, as the country struggled to rebuild its agricultural base. Spam captured a large slice of the British market within lower economic classes and became a byword among British children of the 1960s for low-grade fodder due to its commonality, monotonous taste and cheap price – hence the humour of the Python sketch.

In the 1980s the term was adopted to describe certain abusive users who frequented BBSs and MUDs, who would repeat “Spam” a huge number of times to scroll other users’ text off the screen. In early Chat rooms services like PeopleLink and the early days of AOL, they actually flooded the screen with quotes from the Monty Python Spam sketch. With internet connections over phone lines, typically running at 1200 or even 300 bit/s, it could take an enormous amount of time for a spammy logo, drawn in ASCII art to scroll to completion on a viewer’s terminal. Sending an irritating, large, meaningless block of text in this way was called spamming. This was used as a tactic by insiders of a group that wanted to drive newcomers out of the room so the usual conversation could continue. It was also used to prevent members of rival groups from chatting—for instance, Star Wars fans often invaded Star Trek chat rooms, filling the space with blocks of text until the Star Trek fans left. This act, previously called flooding or trashing, came to be known as spamming. The term was soon applied to a large amount of text broadcast by many users.

It later came to be used on Usenet to mean excessive multiple posting—the repeated posting of the same message. The unwanted message would appear in many if not all newsgroups, just as Spam appeared in nearly all the menu items in the Monty Python sketch. The first usage of this sense was by Joel Furr in the aftermath of the ARMM incident of March 31, 1993, in which a piece of experimental software released dozens of recursive messages onto the news.admin.policy newsgroup. [Note that this is an account of the word spam in this sense; the practice of spamming certainly goes back before 1993.] This use had also become established—to spam Usenet was flooding newsgroups with junk messages.

What’s nice is that most of these developments are recent enough that most of the details can be tracked.

4 Responses to “Wonderful spam”

  1. Jan Freeman Says:

    At the risk of sounding incredibly naive (because I can’t blame my innocence on youth), “get up, dear” is not a double entendre for me even now; I would need the “it” in “get it up.” The blogger’s “get him up” is clear enough, but not quite standard for me. Will be interested to see how others hear it.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I think intransitive get up is still sexually innocent; it would have to be get it up. Get him up is another matter, and I have no idea how long its sexual sense has been around.

  2. John Lawler Says:

    The plate of S&E is not just from a different angle, but reversed. Not that it matters; it’s still spam’n’eggs.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    Yes, “get up, dear” doesn’t mean “get it up, dear” to me, either. And “I can’t get him up for it” only is sexual if “it” has been defined (as it was in the blog) as “sex” – if it were, say, tennis (“do you and your husband play tennis?” “No, I can’t get him up for it”) it wouldn’t be.

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