Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Episode 218: Spam Messages


This week Shauna and Dan learn why we call those pesky emails spam messages. Bonus: The first spam messages (way older that you might think) and why Hormel's canned meat is called SPAM. 

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 218: Spam Messages
Record Date: December 10, 2023
Air Date: December 27, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
If you have access to an email account, then you’ve seen some version of this email: Someone you don’t know has died, but they have left you a large sum of money. You need to act fast to access this life-changing amount of money. All you need to do is to send a small sum of money to the lawyer to facilitate the transfer and then BOOM you are rich. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. That type of message is called a spam message.  


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a spam message - or for short, spam - is:

Unsolicited electronic mail, esp. when sent to individuals as part of a mass-mailing
End Quote

So we are going to be talking about spam, the unwanted messages that are oftentimes sent in bulk. And we are going to explore it in three parts.

First, the first usage of the term in the digital world
Second, the first spam messages, most of which were before we called them spam; And how early they started might surprise you
Third, a little about the canned meat product that bore the name long before it took on the digital meanings

The Term
Spam as a digital term has been in use since at least 1991, when Eric Raymond et al added it to the Jargon File, a common heritage of the hacker culture. In it, spam is defined as:

To crash a program by overrunning a fixed-size buffer with excessively large input data.
End Quote

Clearly, the term has morphed a little since then. It may also have had connotations of a message not being legitimate or not being real, which in a way it still does.
Los Angeles Times Sep 30, 1993 from Oxford English Dictionary

But the term as we use it seems to originate within Usenet, an early discussion board used before the internet was widely available. So let’s jump over to an archive of the Usenet newgroups to learn a little more. On March 30, 1993, it seems Dick Depew of Munroe Falls, OH was testing an auto moderator called automated retroactive minimal moderation, ARMM. That night it got stuck in a recursive loop, reposting the last post again. Over and over again. Several responses to Mr. Depew followed, many of them recognizing the importance of the event. Franscisco DeJesus posted:

This brightens up my day... as soon as I can stop laughing and catch my
breath for a second I'll tell all the programmers here about it... we're
going to be cracking up about this for years to come!
End Quote

Joel Furr responded to that DeJesus with a fun story and a proposed entry for the jargon file:

In the sober light of day, I'm laughing as I re-read the comments on the
March 30 ARMM Massacre. Last _night_, on the other hand, I had a mental
image of a machine sitting atop a hill, making a low droning sound,
releasing infinite numbers of Frankenstein's Monsters on the surrounding
environs. Frankenstein's Monsters here, Frankenstein's Monsters there,
lurching about stiff-leggedly, arms outstretched, and all muttering the
same word over and over: ARMM ARMM ARMM ARMM ARMM.

Usenet History, I tell you. This needs its own listing in the Jargon File:

:ARMM: n. A USENET posting robot created by Dick Depew of Munroe Falls, Ohio.
Originally intended to serve as a means of controlling posts through
anon servers (see also {anon servers}). Transformed by programming
ineptitude into a monster of Frankenstein proportions, it broke loose
on the night of March 31, 1993 and proceeded to spam news.admin.policy
with something on the order of 200 messages in which it attempted, and
failed, to cancel its own messages.
End Quote

And that is the first instance of the word ‘spam’ being used in the context it continues to mean. But it doesn’t give any indication as to why the word spam was used.

The naming of spam messages is widely thought to come from the canned meat product, though not directly. Instead, it appears to come through a Monty Python sketch. Quick aside, Monty Python is a British comedy troupe who self-describe their style on their website as:

Synonymous with rampant silliness, and a refusal to take anything seriously
End Quote

For more about the naming, I’ll turn to Merriam Webster:

Back in 1970, an episode of the famed British comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus aired a sketch featuring Vikings enthusiastically chanting the name of their favorite cooked, canned meat product:

A couple stops at a diner that has copious amounts of Spam on the menu, and that also happens to be populated with Vikings. Whenever the waitress mentions a dish with Spam in it, the Vikings begin to chant, and then sing enthusiastically, the name of the cooked, canned meat product, completely drowning out the other dialogue in the sketch.

Fast forward to the 1990s, where the unrelenting solicitations that popped up on Usenet reminded early Internet users of the Viking song in that sketch. In 1994, the publication Network World described unwanted solicitations on Usenet groups as a "spam attack," thereby introducing the annoying electronic type of spam to a broader audience.
End Quote

Here is a snippet from the original brief on it from the May 30, 1994 edition of the Network World called Canned Spam:

Internet users suffered another “spam attack” last week, this time from a Florida public-access host user who flooded Usenet conferences with ads for a thigh-reducing cream. Retribution, however, was swift. Administrators at the unser’s site quickly yanked his account.
End Quote

But while this explanation seems to be the widely accepted version, there are contemporary sources that seem to indicate a different origin. Here is one from Time Magazine on July 25, 1994.

What the Arizona lawyers did that fateful April day was to ‘Spam’ the Net, a colorful bit of Internet jargon meant to evoke the effect of dropping a can of Spam into a fan and filling the surrounding space with meat.
End Quote

So that definitely seems to indicate a different origin. However, this is the only place I find this specific definition. So it could have just been a misunderstanding by the reporter. Or maybe as more work gets digitized we’ll find more conflicting stories. Still, the Monty Python skit has some merit due to historical use among the community. One term I found in the Jargon File was Brand, Brand, Brand.

Humorous catch-phrase from {BartleMUD}s, in
   which players were described carrying a list of objects, the most
   common of which would usually be a brand.  Often used as a joke in
   {talk mode} as in "Fred the wizard is here, carrying brand ruby
   brand brand brand kettle broadsword flamethrower".  A brand is a
   torch, of course; one burns up a lot of those exploring dungeons.
   Prob. influenced by the famous Monty Python "Spam" skit.
End Quote

*MUD is multi-user dungeon

The First Spam
Shauna, do you have any idea when the first unwanted, unsolicited bulk messages happened?

According to the Economist, it happened in May, of 1864.

ON A May evening in 1864, several British politicians were disturbed by a knock at the door and the delivery of a telegram—a most unusual occurrence at such a late hour. Had war broken out? Had the queen been taken ill? They ripped open the envelopes and were surprised to find a message relating not to some national calamity, but to dentistry. Messrs Gabriel, of 27 Harley Street, advised that their dental practice would be open from 10am to 5pm until October. Infuriated, some of the recipients of this unsolicited message wrote to the Times. “I have never had any dealings with Messrs Gabriel,” thundered one of them, “and beg to know by what right do they disturb me by a telegram which is simply the medium of advertisement?”...

This was, notes Matthew Sweet, a historian, the first example of what is known today as “spam”. It shows that new communications technologies have been prompting questions about etiquette ever since the advent of the telegraph in the 19th century. The pattern is always the same: a new technology emerges on the scene, and nobody can be quite sure how it will be employed, or the appropriate etiquette for its use. So users have to make up the rules as they go along.
End Quote

The first spam email happened in 1978. It was sent by Gary Thuerk in an attempt to sell a new model of computer. Here is Rob Smith writing for the World Economic Forum with more:

Thuerk pitched to roughly 400 prospects via ARPANET, a forerunner to the modern internet, and reaped $13 million in sales for his company. The e-marketing ploy wasn't without controversy, however, and as Thuerk himself recalls, "complaints started coming in almost immediately."

A few days after the original e-mail, an ARPAnet representative called Thuerk to voice his displeasure. "He made me promise never to do it again," he said.
End Quote

The notes “spamming” was popular as a prank in 1988, though there is no indication the word spamming was used to describe this.

“Spamming” starts as prank by participants in multi-user dungeon games by MUDers (Multi User Dungeon) to fill rivals accounts with unwanted electronic junk mail.
End Quote

One of the first mass commercial spam campaigns happened on April 12, 1994 by two Arizona-based lawyers, Laurence Canter and his wife Martha Siegel. Here is an account from the UK marketing news site, Campaign.

Although the pair were not the first spammers, they were the first to use spamming commercially. In doing so they opened the floodgates for the billions of unrequested messages that clog internet systems every day.

Their spamming, posted to more than 5,500 message boards, was questionable to say the least. And it was to set the tone for so many others that followed.

It promoted a scheme to encourage people to enroll in the US government’s "green card lottery". This allocates a limited quantity of "green cards" to non-citizens allowing them to stay and work in the country.

Canter and Siegel offered to do the paperwork for a fee. They omitted to mention that those wanting to enter the lottery had only to send a postcard with their name and address on it to the US state department.

The spam provoked uproar. Their internet service provider, Internet Direct, received so many complaints that its mail servers crashed repeatedly for two days.

Nevertheless, Canter and Siegel claimed to have made between $100,000 and $200,000 as a result of an ad that cost them "only pennies".

Undeterred by the backlash they set up a company to create commercial spamming for other businesses while writing a book called How to Make a Fortune on the Information Super Highway.

Canter later claimed to have no regrets about unleashing spam. "Somebody would have done it if we hadn’t done it."
End Quote

A quick footnote from the article, in 1997 the Supreme Court of Tennessee disbarred Canter in part for alleged illegal advertising practices.

Canned Meat
Let’s move to our final point, this about the origins of the name Spam for the canned meat, or as the Brits say, tinned meat. Which might be more apt. I usually think of a can as a cylindrical object, like a soda, tuna, or green bean can. But for something cuboidal, kind of a 3-D rectangle, I would call it a tin. Like with sardines or, in this case, SPAM.

Anyway, there are several theories out there, including a portmanteau for SPiced hAM and an initialism for Shoulder Pork And Ham. And the SPAM company is a bit cheeky with the mystery of it.

According to the Spam website, the name was created by Ken Daigneau, brother of a Hormel Foods vice president. Hormel held a contest at a holiday party to name the new meat and Ken won $100 for naming the SPAM brand.
And if you are wondering, according to the first three sites I found on Google when I searched, that would be about $2,136.60 in today’s dollars.

The SPAM website also lists a Frequently Asked Questions section with the question “What does the SPAM brand name mean?”.

There are some questions that continually plague man over time. Questions like 'Is there intelligent life beyond Earth?' And 'What is the meaning of the SPAM® brand name?' Unfortunately, we can provide answers to neither. The significance of the SPAM® brand name has long been a subject of speculation. One popular belief says it’s derived from the words 'spiced ham.' The real answer is known by only a small circle of former Hormel Foods executives. And probably Nostradamus.
End Quote

That seems intentionally vague and playful. So let’s see what they originally said about it when they patented it. According to the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Volume 483, dates October 5, 1937 on page 750:

Ser. No. 394,133. Geo. A. Hormel & Company, Austin, MINN. Filed June 16, 1937. SPAM For Canned Meats - Namely, Spiced Ham. Claims use since May 11, 1937
End Quote

So there you go. That’s all we are going to say about the food SPAM. But if you are interested in the history of this American Meat Icon, including why it is so popular in Hawai’i and Korea and why it has made a comeback in the rest of the USA, check out the Behind the Scenes video, which is available at our Patreon. And speaking of Patreon, I want to take this moment to say thank you to those who make Bunny Trails possible.

A Quick Thank You
This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon. And the cool thing about Patreon is it is 100% free to join the Bunny Trails community!

We have new things every weekday on the feeds, including a conversation about what everyone is reading, early access to the show, patron’s only polls, and our behind the scenes video which always includes a little about our week before the show and a cool feature after the show.

We’ve got some other pretty cool stuff, too, like Original Digital Artwork once a month, made by Shauna, and awesome name recognition like Pat Rowe gets every episode. And our top spot is currently occupied by the amazing Mary Halsig Lopez.

You can join the Bunny Trails community for free at bunnytrailspod on Patreon.


Modern Uses

Let’s jump into some examples of how the term is being used in popular culture.

2008 Movie
Spam is a 2008 horror movie directed by Carlos González Sariñana. Here is the short but sweet synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes dot com.

Two teenagers set in motion a joke by a string of emails that turns into a gruesome series of murders.
End Quote

2013 Book
Next up is a 2013 book by Finn Brunton called Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet. Here is part of the synopsis from the publisher:

This is a book about what spam is, how it works, and what it means. Brunton provides a cultural history that stretches from pranks on early computer networks to the construction of a global criminal infrastructure. The history of spam, Brunton shows us, is a shadow history of the Internet itself, with spam emerging as the mirror image of the online communities it targets. Brunton traces spam through three epochs: the 1970s to 1995, and the early, noncommercial computer networks that became the Internet; 1995 to 2003, with the dot-com boom, the rise of spam's entrepreneurs, and the first efforts at regulating spam; and 2003 to the present, with the war of algorithms—spam versus anti-spam. Spam shows us how technologies, from email to search engines, are transformed by unintended consequences and adaptations, and how online communities develop and invent governance for themselves.
End Quote

2015 Book
Here’s another book about spam, this one by Brian Krebs. It’s called, Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime — from Global Epidemic to Your Front Door. Here is the synopsis from the publisher:

In Spam Nation, investigative journalist and cybersecurity expert Brian Krebs unmasks the criminal masterminds driving some of the biggest spam and hacker operations targeting Americans and their bank accounts. Tracing the rise, fall, and alarming resurrection of the digital mafia behind the two largest spam pharmacies—and countless viruses, phishing, and spyware attacks—he delivers the first definitive narrative of the global spam problem and its threat to consumers everywhere.
End Quote

2016 Song
Now we have a song called Spam from the band Beginner off the 2016 album Advanced Chemistry. This is a German Rap group from Hamburg. It’s about a digital life and how spam is everywhere. Even when I Google Translate the lyrics to English, it’s still a pretty telling message. Here is the chorus:

(Spam) Where I walk, or stand, or look
(Spam) Too much input, the flood ahead
(Damn) Always (Spam)
Everywhere (spam)
Way too much (spam)

(Spam) First drag and then drop and then wow
(Spam) And then ex, and then hop, and then ciao
(Damn) Always (Spam)
Everywhere (spam)
Way too much (spam)
End Quote

2021 Song
I ran across a song on Youtube by Jazz Emu called My Brothe: An Email Funk Opera. It features the artist singing a series of spam emails he received concerning an amount of money he is authorized to receive, but he just needs to send $280 to set up the transfer. The music video has a 1980s retro vibe and I loved it.

Wrap Up
At the risk of sounding like the former Governor of Texas declaring his dislike for a widely disliked thing, I hate spam messages.

So if I, and most everyone on the internet, hate spam, why is it still happening?

To wrap us up, I’ll read from an article by Adam Rosen writing for JSTOR Daily. He notes that spam targets a culture’s insecurities. Buried in the junk folders are consistent themes of beauty, youth, vanity, fear. And that’s why we can’t fix it. Because it plays on our own unconscious desires. Here is his closing paragraph:

Email spam is an artifact—or more accurately, a group of trillions of obnoxious, irritating artifacts—of the age. If there’s a lesson to be learned from it, it’s that someone, somewhere, will always try to make a buck off our insecurities and anxieties. Today’s Vi@gra kingpin is yesterday’s snake oil salesman. The fake supplements change, and the tactics change, but the desires remain. For all its talk about revolution, tech hasn’t been able to debug the problem of self-consciousness. Solving this puzzle really would be one weird trick.
End Quote

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons, If you were to go back and take a class from your high school again, which one would you most look forward to?

Emily goes with a practical approach:

I regret that I didn’t take even a basic Auto Shop class
End Quote

And Jan sticks with what he loves:

I love history and geography - social studies for me.
End Quote

Heather also is on the practical side:

I'd like to go back to foreign languages. A few years ago I decided to get back to my high school Spanish, and then I started learning Korean and Mandarin. I was always intimidated by languages, but once I started it snowballed and now I love discovering new words and phrases. If I went back, maybe I'd try French or German.
End Quote

I totally agree on paying more attention in world language classes. Personally, I'd go back and do more musicals. The camaraderie and esprit de corps are difficult to replicate in adulthood, both because of less opportunity for such things but also because of my availability for free time.


Mary says:

I love the musicals, but there’s just something about a high school science class that I really love. All the experiments and every topic has a feel newness to it that mimics discovery if you’re just the right balance of hopeful and cynical.
End Quote

Probably my favorite class I ever took was an Anatomy and Physiology course and I think a lot of that was because of the group of students and the teacher. We were all a bunch of nerds who were essentially b-testing a college course at the high school level to see if it would be added to the course guide. Kind of nerd heaven. But I think it would be a toss-up between that and Spanish. I did not give it the attention I would now. Learning another language is just cool.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.


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