two hands on laptop keyboard looking for the origin of the word spam with spam mail written on screen on blue background and cup of coffee and phone nearby

The Origin of the Word “Spam” – And What Makes an Email Spam

When it comes to the canned pork product, Spam has its fans. But the unsolicited emails that sometimes swarm our inboxes are universally hated. What’s the origin of the word spam as it applies to junk emails? Where did the word spam come from? Read on to find out.

What does the word spam mean?

Merriam-Webster defines spam as “unsolicited, usually commercial messages sent to a large number of recipients or posted in a large number of places.” 

Whether it’s Nigerian Princes promising you an inheritance or any number of pseudo pharmaceuticals, spam affects almost everyone. Some inbox providers do a great job of keeping junk mail at bay, whereas others let a high volume slip through the cracks. 

According to Statista, over approximately one year, almost 283 billion spam messages were sent every single day

There are more spam emails than legitimate ones, but you may still wonder why we call junk mail “spam.” To find the answer to that, we must look to comedy.

The origin of the word “spam”

If you’re one of the higher-ups at Hormel, you may be familiar with the origin of the word spam as it refers to the luncheon meat. Some believe it’s a portmanteau of “spiced ham.” 

However, the meaning of the word spam came to describe pesky, unwanted emails through a Monty Python sketch that first hit the television screen in 1970.  

In the sketch, dangling wires lower two hapless customers into a diner. They hear about the available dishes, but every single menu item has spam in it. One customer protests that she doesn’t like spam when a choir of Vikings drowns out all conversation singing: 

“Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam… Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam!”

You may be thinking about how quickly your spam folder (or even inbox!) fills up – and make the connection to the skit. 

You see, after World War II, Spam was abundant in both the United Kingdom and the United States. As Britain struggled to rebuild its agricultural infrastructure, people were tired of spam. It was, after all, everywhere.

When did spamming first start?

Spam had its anniversary recently: the first unsolicited, mass sending of email ever on May 1, 1978. That’s right; Spam is 45 years old. 

Gary Thuerk, at the time the marketing manager for Digital Equipment Corporation, sent about 400 messages on Arpanet. Some call him the “father of spam,” but Thuerk prefers “the father of e-marketing.”

Related: 26 facts you probably didn’t know about email

With spam nearing 50 years, it continues on. It’s clear that those involved with spam sending are getting something out of it, but it’s essential that there’s a clear distinction between marketing emails and spam. 

Let’s find out what true spam is because lines are sometimes blurry.

example of spam email
“Lovely Spam! Wonderful Spam!” An email I pulled from my spam folder.

What makes an email spam

Some emails are blatantly spam. No, nobody is trying to get ahold of you because they want to give you $10 million. 

Other emails aren’t necessarily spam, but seem “spammy.” Whether you’re sending a personal or business email, staying far away from spam-like behavior is vital to your success. 

But in order to know what to avoid, you have to know what makes an email spam.

To define spam, let’s look to the fascinating Brad Templeton, Chairman Emeritus of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who also introduced himself as “a spam historian of sorts,” on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Templeton asserts that in order to be spam, an email must meet all of the following criteria:

It’s unsolicited

If someone isn’t asking to get your bulk emails, it’s never a good idea to add them to your list of contacts. You may be asking, but what if I think they’ll like my emails? That’s still sending someone unsolicited emails, which gets you one-third of the way down the road to being a bona fide spammer.

It’s a “mass mailing”

You don’t know whether reaching out to someone person-to-person is wanted. Therefore, an individual emailing another individual is not spam. 

In some industries, cold emailing is vital. For example, a journalist requesting a comment may reach out to someone who may not want to hear from anybody but their friends and family. Remember: different people use email for different purposes. 

Related: Are you looking to connect with someone and need their email address? Try the ZeroBounce Email Finder

Adding someone to a mass mailing can be a violation of the law – in many countries anyways. By definition, all spammers send mass mailings. For the most part, their mass mailings are indiscriminate.

The sender is a stranger to the recipient(s)

Chances are, you’ll never know the name or recognize the face of the person or people who send you spam unless they get in trouble and appear in the news. But spammers don’t know their recipients – and they don’t care to know them. Permission marketing is a foreign concept to them.

Here’s an example I found in my spam folder:

example of spam email from distinctive promotions used as illustration to define the origin of the word spam
Does this email look like spam? No personalization, excessive exclamation marks, no unsubscribe button. Plus, it was totally unsolicited. The answer is “yes.”

Even appearing to be a spammer

Are you sending unsolicited, bulk emails to strangers? You’re a spammer. It’s also unlikely that you are reading this.

However, it’s important to note that if you are doing any of these three, use caution. Any spam-like behavior is not good for your sender reputation or even in how you are perceived. Don’t add contacts to an email list without getting permission. Furthermore, use double opt-in to make sure people don’t get added to your list without their consent.

This brings us to our next point.

Why do emails go to spam?

Even people who strive to be ethical should worry about ending up in the spam folder. Don’t think it won’t happen to you. 

The biggest reason emails go to spam is that they are spam, but that’s not the only culprit. Emails will go to spam when: 

  • there is no email hygiene system in place 
  • and/or bad habits or carelessness lead you to be perceived as spam.

To understand more about why emails go to spam, please read this article

What can you do to avoid your emails going to spam?

Any time you send a mass email, make sure you check off a number of boxes:

  • Include a prominent unsubscribe button. Why? If someone can’t find a fast way to get off of your list, they may mark you as spam. 
  • You should also avoid using words in the subject line that would lead people to think your message is spam. 
  • Don’t add anyone to your email list who didn’t give you explicit permission. If you get hit with even a small number of spam complaints, you may get categorized as a spammer in the eyes of Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
  • Send on a regimented sending schedule. Spammers send emails haphazardly and anything you do should appear the opposite of how spammers behave.
  • Regularly validate your email list to identify abandoned email addresses or harmful emails like known complainers (the people who carelessly mark emails as spam, even legitimate ones). You should clean your list no less than quarterly, but many lists would benefit from monthly or every other month.
  • Set up an email validation API on every form that requires an email address. That way you’ll keep bad data away from the get go.

Spam hurts everybody

When Ray Tomlinson sent the very first email, he probably didn’t fully understand how much it would flourish. 

How important is email? 

It’s allowed for email marketing, the number one marketing channel of our time. Plus, so many companies depend on it for critical communication: transactional emails, receipts, confirmations and reminders. 

Related: Did you know that ZeroBounce started Email Day in honor of Ray Tomlinson?

From everything we know about Tomlinson, we can be certain he didn’t intend for people to abuse the communication channel with unwanted, low-quality, opportunistic messages. 

Spam is an interrupter and a massive waste of time and resources. There’s also much collateral damage. Even people who use email legitimately and ethically pay the price for the people who send junk.

Email can be a wonderful thing or it can be another spam. It’s up to you to make it great.

Related: How to build your email list the right way

FAQs about the origin of the word “spam”

Where did the term spam come from?

The term “spam” as it refers to junk emails can be traced to a Monty Python sketch that lampooned the frequency of Spam luncheon meat. Spam messages are in great abundance, surpassing even the canned food product. 

What do the letters in spam stand for?

Some say SPAM stands for Specially Processed American Meat, others believe it is a portmanteau for spiced ham, while others say it stands for Shoulder of Pork and Ham. As it relates to email, spam is not an acronym.

What does the term spam refer to?

Spam refers to unwanted, unsolicited junk emails. It is also an enduring canned pork product that was featured in a famed Monty Python sketch and in a recorded song.