So, What Does the Ham in Ham Radio Stand For?

Sometimes, you can’t help but wonder how some things got their name. Porcupines. Balloons. Ham radio. What do you even think of when you imagine a ham radio? When I was a youngster, I always imagined a little cartoon pig sitting there flipping dials while wearing a headset.

baofeng gt 3 handheld ham radio
the Baofeng gt 3 handheld ham radio

Ham radio has been around for a very long time, and it’s showing no signs of going away anytime soon. Now’s a good time to get into it if you haven’t already. But just what does the ham in ham radio stand for, anyway?

Ham” in the context of radio is a synonym for amateur radio, referring to both the type of radio itself and the operators thereof. Ham is not an acronym and does not stand for anything despite many stories and legends on the internet to the contrary.

Surprise, surprise! I always expected ham to stand for something considering how acronyms are part and parcel of radio operations and most radio operators, amateur or professional, seem to be incredibly fluent in them.

Believe it or not, though, ham isn’t an acronym at all, but the story of how amateur radio came to be referred to as ham radio is a lot more fascinating. You’ll want to hear it, so grab your headset and we’ll get going…

So “Ham” Isn’t an Acronym?

No. Ham is not an acronym, and it never was in reference to radio. Not in reality, despite some persistent legends. And before you ask, it isn’t a “demoted” acronym (anacronym) either, like laser or sonar.

An anacronym is what you get when an acronym gets used so much that it basically just gets turned into an actual, regular word, and many people don’t even know that it originally existed as an acronym or even what it stood for.

For instance, using laser as an example, the original acronym was LASER, standing for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”. What a mouthful!

But back to radios, ham wasn’t an acronym to begin with. It’s always just been… ham!

The Use of “Ham” in Radio Parlance First Started as a Pejorative

If you want to drill down to the origins of ham in reference to radio, you’ve got to go back. Way back to the beginning! I’m talking the turn of the 20th century and even before when the transmission of signals via telegraphs and radio was still relatively young science.

Unskilled operators, those who were incompetent, or those who were careless were said to be hams, a loan-term that could be applied to anyone in any number of other situations where carelessness would cause harm, delay, loss, or even injury.

This was particularly pertinent to radio because as far back as the 1880s communications unions and trade groups decried the use of shoddy ham operators and the fly-by-night schools that turned out great numbers of such people that just couldn’t do the job right.

These unions disparagingly referred to these institutions of “learning” as ham factories.

Hams, Plugs and Lids

In a way, ham was just a general-purpose insult, but one that by 1920 was becoming more and more closely linked with communications and radio in particular.

Other terms for unskilled radio operators, linemen, switchboard operators and similar workers were plug and lid.

Both were basically synonymous with ham when used in this context, and again referred to people that were incompetent, careless, complacent and ultimately incapable of doing the job.

If it helps, have you ever heard the term ham-fisted before? It basically means to mess things up by doing a crappy job, and usually through a lack of delicacy or tact. You can see where “ham” came from in the annals of insults!

“Hamming” Up a Channel Was Akin to the First Spam!

Believe it or not, the pejorative use of pork in the context of radio operations was further cemented in the 1940s, specifically in a January issue of the APCO Bulletin, which made reference to amateur radio stations clogging police radio frequencies with unauthorized transmissions that interfered with official police use.

The term that the publication used to refer to this early form of “spamming” a channel with unwanted, relentless, and annoying communications? Hamming!

So, if you’ve been keeping up, by this point ham was used derogatorily in the context of radio operation for nearly 50 years even by this point!

In Time, Ham Turned into a Benign Term for Amateur Radio Ops

As is often the case, insults sometimes lose their sting and the terms are accepted, even embraced, and then repackaged and repurposed as something good or harmless.

As the decades rolled on, all the way up to today, the term ham was increasingly used to refer to amateur radio generally, both the concept, the guidelines, and the hardware, but also to the people that operated them- ham operators, or ham ops.

You might think this was something of an overnight decision, as if these roguish radio mavericks finally just outlasted or won over their naysayers, but that wasn’t really the case.

It’s more a case of cultural perfusion and a generous dose of memetic mutation that led to this already pervasive, common term sticking around and simply losing its negative connotation. It became a useful label in this way, and ever since ham has persisted.

The Alleged Ham Radio Acronym

Of course, this article would not be complete without a summary investigation and dismissal of the alleged ham acronyms and other sources that I alluded to up above in the beginning.

A lot of these make sense, and a lot of them are plausible, even fun, but they are just not true when it comes to the term “ham” regarding radio usage.

Home Amateur Mechanic

Home Amateur Mechanic was a magazine that, among other things, extensively covered amateur radio operation and technology.

If you take the first letter of each word in the name of the magazine, it spells HAM, and this is said to be where the erstwhile acronym came from. Very plausible, but just not true as discussed above. Busted!

Hammarlund Manufacturing Company Products

A prominent manufacturer of radio and other electronic components and one of the United States’ oldest and longest-lasting, Hammarlund was founded in 1910 and later went out of business entirely in 1973.

Considering that they did indeed manufacture these products, a simple abbreviation of the name gives us “Ham” and that makes it a likely inspiration or even source for the term “Ham op”, as in “Hammarlund operator”.

This, again, though plausible is simply not true and it’s easily disproven: although Hammarlund was founded in 1910, they didn’t start making dedicated radio products and components until the mid-1920s, and by that time ham as we know it was already in use and circulating. Busted!


My personal favorite theory, but sadly another one that just isn’t true, is that “HAM” is an acronym derived from the last names of three crucially important pioneers in radio science…

The three were:

  • Heinrich Rudolph-Hertz, the German physicist who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves using Maxwell’s equations,
  • Edward Armstrong, the American electrical engineer who developed FM radio,
  • and Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the first practical wireless telegraph and credited inventor of the radio.

For the record, I really, really like this one and it’s definitely poetic in a way. But again, a review of history shows it to be bu-bu-busted: Armstrong had not yet made his critical contribution to the field as he was still an unknown student in high school when the term ham was already being bandied about in the context of radio.

Corruption of “Amateur”

Yet another totally plausible and appealing explanation for the origin of ham is that it’s a phonetic corruption of “amateur”.

If someone were to loosely and quickly say the word amateur, there is a distinct but soft and short H sound at the beginning. If you were then to clip off that consonant, you get h’am.

In a similar vein, some people make a case that amateur radio might more properly be called “‘am radio” in shorthand parlance, but because this would be confusing with actual AM radio people popped the H on there to make it distinct (ham radio) while still getting the point across.

Bottom line? This is recursive reasoning at best and has no basis in reality for all the reasons we discussed. Totally busted!

Harvard Hyman-Almy-Murray Radio

And finally, we come to the whopper of them all. This tale has been circulated since the late 1940s, and it is ostensibly an underdog success story that is sure to pull on your patriotic heartstrings as an American, and it is even more fitting that it might have given ham radio its name.

The story goes that sometime around 1911 there was an amateur radio station set up at Harvard University, call sign HAM; H-A-M. The call sign was derived from the last names of the three students at Harvard that ran it, Albert Hyman, Bob Almy and Reggie Murray.

The tale continues that around this time the US Congress was about to hand over total control and dominion over the radio airwaves to the military, and only a fiery speech against it delivered to Congress by Hyman stopped them from acting and saved civilian amateur radio forever after. And, cue the epilogue, civilian radio operators were from then on called “hams” in their honor.

What a story! The problem is that none of it is true. There was not a ham radio station called HAM at Harvard during this time, and though the Harvard students did exist, the timetables in the tale were completely different and the speech to Congress just did not happen. This one’s a heartbreaker, but it is 100% busted!

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