Final Word

Adding some meat to that annoying spam


Those annoying unsolicited e-mails and other messages we receive on the internet got their name from processed meat products via comedy theatre.

If this fact, which we will explain presently, surprises you, you might be even more surprised by the fact that this annoying phenomenon actually predates computers – going back to the days when telegrams became the electronic communication rage of the day.

Unsolicited messages were quite common in the 19th century, especially in the United States, where the communications company Western Union allowed telegraphic messages to be sent simultaneously to multiple destinations on its network.

The result was that wealthy people would regularly be bombarded with messages soliciting donations for a ‘worthy cause’ or with investment offers.

The word ‘spam’ only made its appearance in 1937 when Geo. A. Hormel registered SPAM as a trade name for spiced ham. The name for a new product of canned shoulder pork and ham was chosen from entries in a naming contest at Hormeland was a conflation of ‘spiced ham’.

Enter comedy

In the very popular 1970 comedy Flying Circus contains a skit in a restaurant where all the menu items were based on SPAM. When a waitress introduced the menu she repeatedly uses the word SPAM – from “Eggs and SPAM” to “Chips and SPAM.”

A group of Vikings present in the restaurant started singing “SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, lovely SPAM!  Wonderful SPAM!”, drowning out other conversation. Eventually they had to be told to shut up.

When and where this first transferred to the world of the internet is not exactly sure. A number of theories exist and different sources make different claims of when it was first recorded in reference to unsolicited messages or malicious text on the internet.

What is certain, is that ‘spam’ as a term referring to messages, rather than the food product, was first added to the New Oxford Dictionary of English in 1998. It defined ‘spam’ as “Irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent on the Internet to a large number of newsgroups or users”.

It seems pretty sure that, although there are earlier examples of the use of the ‘spam-technique’ as far back as the 1980s on ‘chat systems’ or multi-user-dungeons the word came into general use in the early 1990s.

Irony of cure worse than illness

It might not have been the first use of the term, but it ironically seems to have really caught on when a programmer of the platform Usenet, Richard Depew, in early 1993 was playing with some moderation software aimed at dealing with the problem. But there was a bug in his first efforts.

He accidentally ended up posting around 200 duplicate messages in a row to news, admin, policy newsgroup. The first person to call this spam, in reaction to what happened with Depew, is thought to be colleague Joel Furr. Depew himself when he apologised referred to his messages as spam and the term’s rise to prominence started in earnest.

Solution still a dream

Since the days io Depew’s efforts, which has also triggered debates about issues like freedom of speech, much progress has been made with “filter” programmes and even legislative frameworks in some countries.

But before one gets too excited about the prospects of coming to grips with the problems of spam on the internet, consider a report by Cisco systems in 2009 which found that of the 90 trillion emails sent globally in 2009, 81% were spam. That amounts to about 200 billion spam emails sent every day.

Of all email spam, about 73% is attempting to steal the user’s identity in some way (phishing), including possible bank information or gaining enough information to open new credit accounts for the user.

by Piet Coetzer

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