This is Why We Call Junk Email "Spam"

James Logie

There are a lot of differences amongst people, but the one thing everyone can agree on is that we all hate spam email.

It’s a universal hatred that unites all.

But where do we get the term ‘spam’ from as it pertains to junk email? The story goes back to the late ‘70s, Monty Python, Dungeons and Dragons, and the advent of a new ‘electronic mail.’

The Overabundance of Spam Email in Our World

We've gone from a time where we got excited about an email and loathed all the regular mail we got in the post.

Now, with regular mail a dying medium, we get excited over an actual letter and despise seeing a full inbox.

It turns out that spam email makes up most of all emails sent. The latest information states that 45% of all email is spam and a staggering 14.5 billion spam messages are sent each day.

When you factor in messages that are unsolicited advertisements, all this unwanted email makes up as much as 73% of all messages.

The biggest categories for spam email are advertising (36% of all spam), adult content (31.7%), and financial-related spam (26.5%).

What Is Spam Costing Us?

Well, a lot actually. Most spam is just annoying, but some are scams and fraud-related — around 2.5%.

Identity theft is a big issue with spam emails, and this is the goal of most of these fraudulent emails.

But the financial effects are staggering, too. Data from the Radicati Group and Nucleus Research states that email spam is costing businesses a staggering $20.5 billion a year.

This is the reason why spam exists — it works.

This massive cost comes from the decreased productivity and all the technical expenses a company faces because of spam email.

It’s estimated that if spam email continues to grow, it could cost the global economy $257 billion dollars.

Here are a few more spam fun facts:

  • The U.S. is home to seven of the top 10 spammers.
  • China is the origin of the most spam emails in the world.
  • The biggest spam operator in the world is in Ukraine and called “Canadian Pharmacy.”
  • 80% of all spam sent in North America are from the same 100 groups.
  • Stats show that three out of four companies have fallen victim to a phishing scam.

The Very First Spam Email?

The term spam regarding email became official in 1998 when it entered the Oxford English dictionary.

Spam the “food” product goes back a lot further.

The Hormel company introduced the luncheon meat in 1938, and the name comes from a shortening of “shoulders from pork and ham.”

It then became a famous part of a Monty Python sketch that evolved into the musical “Spamalot.” Around the time of the Monty Python sketch, the first spam email may have been sent.

It was reported that in 1978, a marketer named Gary Thuerk was trying to create interest in the DECSYSTEM-20 computer.

Thuerk used a printed ARPANET directory to reach out to as many people as possible. ARPANET was a way to connect users at different institutions, communicate with them, and share resources — this would grow to become the internet as we know it.

The ARPANET could send information in small units called packets that could get to their specific destination — you might call that email today.

They were an East Coast company and wanted to spread the news of the DECYSYSTEM-20 to those on the West Coast.

All the addresses on the ARPANET printout were manually typed into the mail program on Thuerk’s computer.

The program could only hold 320 addresses, so the rest overflowed into the body of the message.

He didn’t seem to think this was a big deal, but everyone didn’t share that sentiment. Everyone was furious about getting all this unnecessary information.

How Did the Name Spam Get Associated With This?

Associating the name Spam with junk email goes back to the early ‘80s and Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs.

These were real-time virtual worlds used on computers. They used text-based games and had elements of role-playing — not unlike Dungeons and Dragons.

These domains also featured interactive fiction and early versions of online chat.

By this point, the Monty Python’s Flying Circus spam sketch had come out and become quite popular.

If you’ve never seen this sketch, it involves a bunch of Vikings at a restaurant that serves all its dishes with sides of Spam.

The sketch shows all the Vikings singing a song about Spam. They keep repeating and repeating the word Spam until told to shut up.

So, the idea is that Spam is something that keeps repeating and repeating itself and annoys everyone.

Back in these Multi-User Dungeons, they had trolls just like today (possibly where we get the term troll from in relation to the dungeon?) and they would flood the database with a lot of useless text.

Because it was aggravating — and they repeated the same text over and over — this triggered the connection with Spam from the Monty Python sketch.

Spam Grows Bigger

A few people in these small groups only used the term Spam, but its usage would grow because of the Usenet community.

Usenet groups go back to the early days of the internet and as online discussion groups. This is before the World Wide Web, and Usenet newsgroups were one of the most popular ways to use the internet.

But there was a problem with this Usenet program. They created a program called ARMM, or Automated Retroactive Minimal Moderation, to help control Usenet abuse, but a bug in it caused some issues.

Side note:

The first recorded incidence of the term bug as it pertains to technology and electronics may be attributed to Thomas Edison in 1876.

He wrote how insects were making their home in early versions of telephones, and that he literally had found a “bug in the apparatus.”

Bugs — as they pertain to computers — appear to go back to 1947. Computers then were the size of a room, and basically gigantic calculators.

In September 1947, a moth had gotten into the Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator at Harvard.

An error on the Mark II was connected to the moth that had got inside. The “computer” then had to be “de-bugged” and fixed to work properly again.

The moth was taken out and actually taped into the logbook to record the “Computer bug.”

Back to the Spam…

That ARMM program had a bug and ended up sending out hundreds of the same message. A message to the Usenet community shared that:

“Transformed by programming ineptitude into a monster of Frankenstein proportions, it broke loose on the night of March 31, 1993 and proceeded to spam news.admin.policy with something on the order of 200 messages.”

From here, the use of the word Spam spread to the point where it became synonymous with unwanted text and messages.

Today, it has developed past that into not only an annoyance but a harmful industry costing us billions of dollars.

Photo by Hannes Johnson on Unsplash

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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