I don’t know exactly what spurred this line of conversation, but I had a friend say to me the other day, “Do you not know what ‘going ham’ means?”
I was pretty sure that I did, but that was one of those leading questions that suggested that I didn’t know what the definition of going ham was. I had and have an idea that it means something along the lines of “doing an activity in an aggressive, reckless manner.”
He informed me that it was an acronym, standing for “Hard as a M***********.”1
If that doesn’t sit right with you, don’t worry, it bothered me too.
There were reasons that I didn’t think this could be true right off the bat.
The first was that people seem to be comfortable saying “going ham” around children, and if it was a really a profane acronym, it seems unlikely that they would.
The second was that it’s a horrible acronym. It’s either violating one of two rules about the way in which we make acronyms: either it’s leaving out an “as” or “a” to make “h.a.m.” or its arbitrarily including both “as” and “a” in the acronym to make “h.a.a.m.,” which are words that are commonly left out of acronyms. With the latter, we have to ask if it can be pronounced like “ham” is.
So, I think we have reason to doubt that it is an acronym, even if we can’t prove it just yet.
If “hard as a m*” is a definition for going ham that differs from what I thought it was, then we need to figure out where it comes from.
A quick search on Google Trends, which displays the relative popularity of a term in searches over time reveals the following:
As you can see, there is a massive, massive spike in the popularity of the term in January 2011, reaching its zenith in the next month.
On January 11, 2011, rappers Jay-Z and Kanye West released a song titled “H•A•M,” which explicitly gave the definition of going ham as “hard as a m*.” I wonder whether the “a” in the acronym is supposed to represent “as” or “a,” and where the other one went.
It’s important to note that every definition of the term on Urban Dictionary comes from January 12, 2011, or later. This is important, because many attempts to explain what the term means cite this site, and the definitions are forever tainted by the popularity of the Kanye West and Jay-Z song.
Of course, they didn’t come up with the term. Other rappers had used the phrase “go ham” in their music prior to 2011, including Gucci, who released a song titled “Go Ham On Em,” in 2008, though it lacks the full definition of the word, so it’s impossible to know which he was using at the time.
So, it’s possible the Jay-Z/Kayne West definition was in use at the time. I guess there’s no way of knowing, though.
Aw, who am I kidding?
Of course, we can find out!
Here’s a chart over the same time period for the phrase “hard as a m*”:
First, you need to know that the phrase “hard as a m*” has a lower overall volume, and since Google Trends makes its charts based on a percentage scale and not a raw volume, small changes in a term with a small overall search volume can look like massive spikes. So the spikes towards the beginning of this chart look more dramatic but don’t represent as many searches as they would on the “going ham” chart.
Second, there are literally zero searches for “hard as a m*” until mid-2006, while “going ham” had pretty consistent search volume from 2004 until mid-2009, where it began to take off, possibly due to increased usage in the rap community, until even Kanye and Jay-Z were using it.
Consequently, the definition of going ham predates “hard as a m*.”
Which means that we probably have a backronym on our hands.
“What is a backronym?”
In short, it’s a “constructed phrase that purports to be the source of a word that is an acronym.”
A somewhat-famous example is the “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill,” or the “C.O.L.B.E.R.T.” It was named after Stephen Colbert, who tried to get what would eventually be called the “Tranquility” ISS module named after himself since NASA had opened up the naming to a public vote.
So, what I think we’re experiencing here is that the definition of going ham has a common definition that predates the backronym for the term that comes from the rapping community. The weird fit between the phrase and the alleged acronymic definition supports this theory. If it was the source for the phrase, wouldn’t it fit better?
Furthermore, whether or not you’re aware of the second definition seems to depend on how much rap you consume.
But, maybe that’s not convincing enough for you. Of course, the Google data could, and probably is, incomplete. Maybe it is just a profane acronym.
Of course, then we have to consider its relationship with other pork-based phrases. You could have a “hammy actor,” or an actor “hamming it up.” You could do something in a “ham-fisted” manner or talk about a woman’s “hams.” Because you’re a pig.
Or maybe it has another origin: the wonderful world of radios.
An ad from the June 1977 edition of “Popular Mechanics” features the following sentence: “One of the best reasons to go ham is the quiet hi-fi sound of radios used in the two-meter ham band.” As you may have guessed, they’re trying to sell “ham radios.” So, we have a possible origin for the phrase, though not necessarily one that seems to jive with the common understanding.
But, if that is the going ham origin point, it’s probably the first or only time in history that a bunch of “cool” rappers stole a phrase from nerdy ham radio operators.
This is K•H•A•M, signing off. See y’all tomorrow.
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