A Few Words About Ham

I sometimes think the humble pig, or more specifically the meat of the humble pig, gets a bad rap in modern day parlance. It was not always thus, although it has been a topsy-turvy ride, to say the least. In Biblical times, despite the strict kosher laws, Noah (of “The Ark” fame) chose to name one of his sons Ham. Ham went on to fame (or notoriety, depending on your point of view) by walking in on his drunken naked father (who was sleeping off a heinous hangover in his tent; good thing he wasn’t driving the Ark at that point, we might have wound up with kangaroos in Denmark) and displaying the temerity to cover dad’s erstwhile exposed form with a garment. For this grievous error in judgement, Ham was roundly cursed by his father, and banished to the Land of Ham (what are the chances of that?), currently known as Egypt. He was apparently further afflicted with some dermatological condition (as if being sent to BC-era Cairo wasn’t enough), which, according to some Biblical and Talmudic scholars, turned his skin black. The phrase “the curse of Ham” made it down through the ages more or less intact, referenced by the Mormon leader Brigham Young in his reasoning that since black people were the then-modern-day recipients of the curse, they could not serve as Mormon priests. Thankfully, in 1978, Mormon church president Spencer Kimball received a revelation from God saying that all worthy males could serve, so the curse of Ham was cured, so to speak.

Ham can be found as the name of small towns in Belgium, France and England, and there are diminutives and variations of the name to be found worldwide (Eastham, Westham, Shoreham, Ham Lake, Hams, Hamburg, Hamamatsu, etc.). Big deal, you might say, but I would challenge you to find towns named Beef, Chicken, Goat, and so on. That is no doubt doable, but with a significantly greater degree of difficulty than with Ham.

The fortunes of Ham took a further downturn, sadly, when the name was applied to third-rate (and all rates below that) actors, who “hammed it up”, seriously overacting to draw attention to themselves (and by extrapolation, away from all the other actors on the stage at the same moment). This apparently has its etymological roots in the old actors’ tradition of using ham fat to remove stage makeup. Actors were referred to as “hamfatters”, later shortened to “ham.” This is by no means the only explanation floated, however, not by a long shot. Another suggests that the word “amateur” actually derives from the Cockney slang “hamateur”, although perhaps the other way ‘round is more likely.

Ham took its rightful (?) place in mathematical circles with the Stone-Tukey Theorem, better known as the Ham Sandwich Theorem, which basically states that you can cut a ham sandwich in half, such that each half has precisely the same amount of ham and bread, with but a single cut. The fact that this has been proven by countless housewives, more or less since the invention of bread, seems to have cut no mustard with the mathematics community, who heralded the 1942 theorem as groundbreaking.

On a (slight) plus note, while unwanted emails are widely known as “spam”, emails that one actually chooses to receive are much less widely known as “ham.” Here’s an idea: an email that you are really looking forward to could be a “HoneyBaked Ham”. Just a thought. I quite like HoneyBaked hams.


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