Spam & Community History

Subject: Bogus etymology: "Bug" and "Spam"
In reply to a thread on the origins of the term "spam," John W. Cobb offers:

I first became familiar with the term in the late 80's (revealing my youth here) as used on Usenet groups that were dealing with continual phenomenal growth and accomodating "newbies" who didn't understand "netiquette".

There the term "Spam" was used to describe the action of a less than courteous poster who blasted a message (often long) to many newsgroups. The message were often off-topic as well. This is perhaps best represented by the more recent spam wars with Cantor and Siegal offering Green Card on every newsgroup.

In terms of the origin of the term "Spam" I had always assumed that it was derived from the widely popular Viking Spam skit from Monty Python. It made sense to me since the couple in the cafe could not hold a conversation over the din of vikings yelling and singing "sam, spam, spam, spam". It seems quite analogous to the problem of having intelligent conversation on a newsgroup when there is a mass of unrelated trash to wade through. Moreover, there seems to be a large overlap between Python fans and computer-folk.

As I said, I assumed this was the meaning, although it's use certainly pre-dates my awareness of this subculture.

However, the humourous part is that people even newer to the net than myself have taken it upon themselves to often write histories or explanations without any real knowledge about the topic and without any humility about their lack of knowledge. Their explanations of the roots of terms and customs are often very funny.

I think it was an airline magazine that started carrying articles about computers and the net where an author proceeded to explain to the reader the meaning of "spamming" pretty accurately, and then explained that its origin was that it is analogous to throwing a chunk of spam at a fan. It goes everywhere and gets all over everything. I really chuckled because I am famous for mixnig metaphors myself. It's not spam that hit the fan, it's a term that surfwatch filters out.

The etymology of such words is interesting in and of itself, but it is, IMO, a useful way to understand this subsculture. We've already talked about bug, software, surfing, and smilies (or emoticons). Other terms that might be useful to comment upon are:

foo and bar as generic variable/function names
Gnu (was Stallman the first? did he listen to the Smother's brothers?)

and of course a history of the growth of abbreviations (IMO,RTFM,YKYHB***,...)

The lesson for us all here, however, is that we should be careful in commenting on our community history to separate the different levels of confidence we place in the accounts posted here. We should note which sources are primary and which are secondary, etc. Otherwise, this collected memory will be much less useful because we may make it difficult to separate fact from poor memories. Let's try to write history, not create urban myths.

-john .w cobb

            Posted by David S. Bennahum (
                    Moderator: Community Memory
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From cobbjw@ornl.govSun Jun 23 15:16:53 1996
Date: Fri, 14 Jun 1996 14:01:57 -0700
From: "John W. Cobb" 
Reply to: cpsr-history@Sunnyside.COM
To: "Multiple recipients of list"

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