At the behest of a colleague, University of Michigan Professor Anne Curzan started poking into the history of ham. The word, that is.
“When you think about it, ham-handed is a really weird way to say something is clumsy or awkward,” says Curzan.
So how does a beloved lunch meat also become an idiom for the ineffectual?
The food ham is the most common usage of the word ham, and that originates from the name for a body part.
“Ham refers to the back of a knee or the thigh,” says Curzan. “And certainly pigs have hams, but humans also have hams. I think we more commonly think of it as a hamstring, the tendon that runs up the back of your thigh.”
The word ham naturally extended to a pig thigh that was salted and dried, which is the food some of us love to put on sandwiches. But in the late 19th century, the word started seeing uses outside of the deli.
“One of them is to refer to an ineffective actor,” says Curzan. “Someone who is a ham on the stage.”
But according to Curzan, that usage didn’t necessarily come from the food. “That seems to come from hamfatter, and was used to refer to actors or performers,” says Curzan. “And that can be shortened to ‘a ham.’”
The ineffective connotation of ham seems to have stuck.
“[In] 1919, we see ham show up to refer to an amateur telegraphist, or an amateur radio operator,” says Curzan. “There, we have this use of ham to refer to someone who is amateur, and maybe ineffective in that amateur role.”
After the 19th century, Curzan found usages of ham-handed that were increasingly figurative as writers began to make clear analogies between fists and, well, slabs of meat. Before long, ham-handed began to refer to a general state of awkwardness.
“I was looking in the [Oxford English Dictionary] and I discovered that people have used the word ham-handness,” says Curzan. “And I think that’s just a great word for the state of doing awkward things.”