Origins of Ham-Radio

At the beginning, this hobby did not have a clear name, but it was described as private stations, amateur wireless/radio, citizen radio, ham radio and a person – a spark, wireless boy, amateur, experimenter, radio amateur, ham, OM, radio ham. Government and commercial operators used to hear poor telegraphing and referring to them as ‘hams’. As the years went by many non-commercial station operators were in the process of proudly adopting ‘ham’ as  a  description  of  their  hobby/name (Ham radio/Ham also OM).
Officially, the wording a amateur or amateur station firstly means kind of service free of charge, but frequently is confused with level of involvement. In some  countries the term ‘experimental’ was used, but later after changing understanding of terminology (new ITU  definitions 1934) it was replaced by ‘amateur’. Amateur radio is a description of the service. Also some activity classified as kind of sport (radiosport).

Etymology of slang ‘Ham’

Ham (1863) – a clumsy;… (often) an unskilled athlete, esp. a prizefighter. Historical dictionary of American slang. J.E. Lighter. 1994. 
At least since 1880 the slang appeared in telegraphy. At that time skilled operators dubbed a poor operator (poor fist) by term ‘ham‘. Around 1890 there appeared  more expressions as ‘hand like a ham‘ and later its shorter forms ‘ham-handed’/’ham-fisted’ having clumsiness with telegraph keys. And around 1900 – ‘hog-Morse‘.
After 1912 the term is already used by radio amateurs in a complimentary manner. From 1919 the term ‘ham’ already printed in various dictionaries.

False etymologies

1.The second meaning ‘a low grade performer’ came from theater.
‘Ham’ (theatrical) is a short form for ‘ham-fatter’‘ham-fat’ and ‘The Ham-Fat Man‘ from an old minstrel show (1858/56, Scottish melody). As theatrical expression  ‘Ham-fatter’ were used for two pugilists, trainer of racer and baseball fans. Although met as stage expression (Ham telegrapher, … Got no ear for music), but never in the long form like ‘ham-fatter’ as operator. The definition: Sacramento daily record-union., March 19, 1881.

2. In 1929 William H. Nugent published his opinion which gained popularity. In  his opinion 1870s ‘Ham’ began as an abbreviation of  amateur to am, witch the cockney pronounced h’am. But  no track record was found (in the meantime) only ham called ‘am and I am pronunciation as ‘I ham’. Probably confused with the metaphor Ham/’am (perhaps from  ‘hand like a ham‘ 1830).



1. The term ‘Ham’. The Bourbon news. March 17, 1882 and 1883.
2. The term ‘Ham’. The Telegraphist. 1884.
3. The term ‘Ham’. Sketch old and new. Walter P. Philips. 1897 (1902).  Link: page 223
4. Sporting slang 1888. Americanisms old & and new. J.S.Farmer. 1889.  Link: page 284
5. That term ‘Ham’. QST, July 1945.
6. ‘Ham-handed‘ 1876 (‘Ham-fisted’ 1893) from ‘Hand like a hamLink:page 100.
7. OED | The definitive record of the English language. Second edition, 1989.

Other links:

1. The Pugilistic “hams” or… The Ottawa free trader. May 21, 1887.
2. Sporting slang 1889. Studies in slag 2. G.Cohen 1989.
3. Ham – A ballplayer’s hand. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary-3. 2009.
4. Ham hitter – arch. An inferior batter. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary-1. 1989.
5. Why the Ham? The American Telegrapher: a social history 1860-1900. 1988.
6. Webster’s New World Telecom Dictionary. 2007.
7. World Wide Worlds: Ham