I came across the word 'ham' in an article which was used to refer to an actor. I referred the dictionary. But I was unclear of the fact that how can it be used to refer to an actor?
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ham actor. origin
when a person overacts immensely. it is generally more accepted in the theatre but criticised in film and tv. can also describe a person who is being fake. also called "hamming it"
The word Ham to mean an "overacting inferior performer," apparently dates from about 1882 and orignates from American English. Originally the word was hamfatter, meaning "actor of low grade," and has been linked to an old minstrel show song, "The Ham-fat Man" which dates from about 1863.
Ham means Not a professional or Not a member of a paid profession. An amateur, as in an unpaid radio operator, is also called a Ham. They are not paid for their work, instead they make their own radios from used parts.
Lacking professional skill—as in a poor theatrical performer. In the history of theater, amateur actors used ham or pig fat as a "poor" homemade theatrical makeup, not professionally applied makeup. Hamming became synonymous with poor acting due to the overuse of greasepaint which was made from ham fat.
Following up on the earlier answers by Ilythya and john crow, I did some research into the theories that ham (in the actorly sense) derives from ham fat or from hamfatter (or from both).
Ham fat or ‘The Ham-fat Man’?
John Ayto, Word Origins, second edition (2005) includes this comment in its entry for ham:
This bolsters Ilythya’s answer; but john crow’s answer finds support, too, in Martin Harrison, The Language of Theatre (1993):
Michael Macrone, Animalogies (1995) brings the “ham grease” and “Hamfat Man” theories together in a somewhat different way from Harrison [combined snippets]:
So one source says that ham fat was used to blend with powder make-up before application, and another that ham fat was used to remove blackface makeup (presumably burnt cork) after application.
Earliest occurrence of ‘Hamfatter’
According to Iris Blake, “Burlesque: Music, Minstrelsy, and Mimetic Resistance” (2013), “The Ham Fat Man” was an 1863 minstrel song show, which also (she says) is the first song to include the words “hootchy cootchy,” albeit in a primitive phonetic spelling. The chorus of the song:
Early notice of the term hamfatter appears in John Farmer, Americanisms Old and New (1889), where the term doesn’t refer to performers of any kind:
Another source indicates that in New York City the term hamfatter was applied colloquially to non-actors by 1879. From George Sala, “All the Fun of the Fair,” (December 3, 1879), in America Revisited, sixth edition (1886):
However, in “Spangles and Sawdust,” in the Nashville [Tennessee] Union and American (November 6, 1879), a “flying trapeze” artist tells the reporter that the term refers to second-rate performers in his profession:
It’s difficult to think of a form of entertainment where the idea of applying ham fat before a show seems less suitable than in a trapeze act—but that consideration evidently didn’t prevent the minstrelsy term hamfatter from becoming circus slang, too.
The first instance of a performer specifically promoted as a “ham-fatter” appears in an ad for the Vaudeville Theatre in the San Antonio [Texas] Light (April 8, 1884):
The same ad mentions that Frye will participate later in the show as a character in “The exceedingly laughable Ethiopian interlude, entitled, Nitro-Glycerine!” which is evidently one of the high points of the evening.
Other uses of ham fat in popular entertainment
From Rosemarie Ostler, Let’s Talk Turkey: The Stories Behind America’ Favorite Expressions (2008):
I was surprised that multiple sources endorsed the theory that ham fat as preparation for makeup (or as a post-performance cleanser of makeup) inspired the minstrelsy song “the Ham Fat Man.” An alternative theory might be that “Ham Fat Man” was simply a stock minstrelsy name—like Tambo, Jim Crow, and Mr. Bones—that had no reference to practical uses of ham fat on the stage.
In any event, the argument that “ham actor” is derived from hamfatter seems quite strong, even though the term hamfatter was also used in connection with forms of entertainment besides stage acting, and indeed was sometimes applied to people who were not entertainers at all.
Interesting evolution of the term: