"...Lest We Forget!...

A generation is now passing away that remembers the true origin of the term SPAM® as applied to bulk email.

It it my sincere hope that the interesting little history behind this use of the word SPAM is not forgotten. This was a facinating time in computing, at the dawn of newer, sprier operating systems, and the Internet. And, as is so often the case with language, the history of a word is the history of people, ideas, values, feelings, social philosophies, and on and on.

NOTE: Spoiler: The key fact is that "SPAM", in relation to Internet email, did NOT originally refer to commercial bulk email!

If this piques your interest, read on!

  • Monty Python pens and executes the "SPAM sketch." An amazing achievement, it ingeniously links a fatty lunch meat to a social institution as old as time itself; "giving someone back as good as, or seriously better than, you got." This raised SPAM to mythic levels which it hardly deserved, which was certainly part of the charm among discerning, sophisticated consumers of humor.
  • Through DARPA funding, the first glimmerings of the Internet become available to academic and military computer system and network researchers. Before ".com" was a gleam in anyone's eye, you had ".edu," and ".mil," which were public domains, funded by tax money.
    Tax Form Montage
  • The first Internet-connected computers ran almost entirely on academic versions of UNIX for their operating systems. These early academic productions were not very secure or robust. In fact, the Users themselves fairly frequently crashed these systems when a buggy program inadvertently filled the "root spindle" (main hard disk) to 100%.
  • When the first bulk commercial emails—what's now called "SPAM"—went out under this regime, the shock and indignity of seeing this kind of crass commercialism being engaged in on the taxpayers' nickel was profound.

    A collective response quickly evolved; a notice went around to "SPAM the bastard," and hundreds (or thousands) of bulky return emails were dispatched post-haste to the sender of the despised commercial email. All you really had to do was attach a huge file to a single email.

    Under earlier, less robust versions of UNIX, the email daemon—an ever-present background process that woke up and went to work under certain circumstances—would stash return email on the root spindle. With the massive volume of SPAM, the offending party's root spindle would fill to 100% and crash (and hopefully burn) their system.

    Because this action had a perfect parallel in the Monty Python's "SPAM sketch," this return email was called "SPAM," like the male chorus drowning out the folks in the Python sketch. Again: Notice that "SPAM" originally refered to this return email, NOT the original, offending commercial bulk sending.

  • The bulk emailers got hip and quickly figured out various ways to avoid this retribution. Spammers (the anti-'Net-abuse vigilantes) came to realize that "spamming" their tormentors had become futile, and stopped the practice.

    However, the noun "spam" and the verb "to spam" had become so cozy and familiar that it was kept, although, now that there was no retributional return email, it mutated to refer to the original commercial email.