And now for something completely different:
Monty Python’s Fun Etymology!
You probably all know the comedy troupe Monty Python. Their revolutionary brand of absurdist and deconstructionist comedy has been deemed as influential for the comedic art as the Beatles’ songs have been for rock music.
Heck, all of us could probably recite the entire script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail by heart.
Don’t try to deny it.
As with many other influential personages in literature and art in general, Monty Python have influenced the English language to a surprising degree. The most obvious word originating from them is “pythonesque”, an adjective used to describe particulary absurd or surreal comedic situations, but there are a couple of others which are far more surprising.
The most famous and by far most prevalent contribution to the English language Monty Python made is the modern meaning of the word “spam”. The origin of the word, as most of you will know, is the name of an American brand of tinned meat produced by the Hormel Food Corporation. Nobody knows where its name ultimately comes from, and Hormel insists its origin is known only to a select few within the company. The most popular theory is that it’s an abbreviation of “spiced ham”.
However, the word “spam” today has another meaning which is far more frequent than its original one, and that is “unwanted or unsolicited messages”, especially in reference to e-mail advertising.
This surprising usage doesn’t come from any particular tendency Spam had to be advertised via e-mail, but from a Monty Python sketch filmed for their series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
In it, a couple walks (or rather descends) in what looks like a sordid cafè entirely patronised by Vikings and asks the waitress for the day’s menu, which she obediently lists. Every single dish in this menu contains bewildering amounts of Spam, with the word “spam” often repeated multiple times within the same dish. Trouble is, one half of the couple doesn’t like Spam, and repeatedly asks for it to be removed from some of the dishes, a request which is invariably met with disgust by the waitress and her husband, who both love Spam and want to have as much as possible. This intrusion of the word Spam in every other sentence persists until the end of the episode, and even during the credits, where the names of various people are frequently interrupted by this annoying canned product.
When e-mail was invented, the tendency of some unscrupulous advertisers to program bots to send thousands of unsolicited e-mails reminded people of this sketch, and the rest is history.
Fun fact: the same episode containing the Spam sketch also contains a sketch about a Hungarian tourist with a comically inaccurate phrasebook trying to buy cigarettes.
This sketch originated a common running joke among translators, which is including the sentence “my hovercraft is full of eels” in phrasebooks, even though the circumstances in which one might use it are, to put it mildly, very unlikely to occur.
Here you can find a page with the sentence translated in an enormous number of languages!