Thursday, September 29, 2011

SPAM: A Madd Couple Well Matcht

 In 1652, the dramatist Richard Brome introduced to the written language the charming phrase “noonings and intermealiary lunchings” in his play, “A Madd Couple Well Matcht.” The word for a meal eaten around noon, luncheon, dates from around 1580 (at least in print), and usually referred to a thick slice of bread eaten with cheese.

It took 357 years for the Hormel Company to change all that by inventing a new “luncheon meat,” SPAM. In 1937 when it was launched, neologisms were all the rage in advertising, and a chap named Kenneth Daigneau — a brother of a Hormel executive — came up with it, pairing spiced with ham, one of the more successful cases of a word whose origins exemplify a “couple well matched.”

So popular was this tinned meat that it soon entered the literary sphere. In 1939, Steinbeck referred to it in The Grapes of Wrath: “The tractor driver stopped‥.and opened his lunch: sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, white bread, pickle, cheese, Spam.”

But in just twenty short years, Spam’s reputation took on a darker flavor; by 1959 the term “spammy” had come to mean commonplace, mediocre and unexciting as a direct allusion to SPAM’s distinctive blandness.

By the time personal computing and email required a term for opportunistic crud that flooded your mailbox, 5 billion tins of SPAM had been sold. It proved the perfect word to poach for this new purpose, which the Los Angeles Times did in 1993 with “This rumor may have a high Spam content.” Thus it was that a proper noun — SPAM — transformed itself into an adjective and a verb; hence to spam; to be a spammer. By utilizing the word in a new, lower-case context, proprietary laws governing the brand name’s use can be avoided.

None of this seems to have hurt SPAM itself, however. Its popularity remains in place, partly due to a re-engineering of ingredients to keep pace with the public’s perceived need for low-fat, low-salt versions, and a healthy dose of nostalgia. Indeed, the Hormel Company appears to have decided to embrace the new meaning of their word by promoting the satire “Sir Spamalot” on their website (where the word “SPAMALOT” is once again brought under the copyright umbrella as an officially trademarked name.

This seems fitting; good old Kenneth Daigneau was himself a well-known Broadway actor. Ultimately, it’s all a play on words — not just a play with words. 

 Most-For-The-Money Main Dishes, Campbell Soup Company, 1975

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