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?

  • 5
    There is also an idiom, "ham it up" (especially for actors). When people ham it up they deliberately exaggerate their emotions or movements.
    – Vic
    May 2, 2014 at 6:43
  • 1
    If you are clumsy or incompetent at something you are also said to be "ham-handed" or "ham-fisted" which gives the impression that your hands are like large unwieldy pieces of meat, unsuited for delicate work.
    – Ilythya
    May 2, 2014 at 11:48
  • Some fun and interesting notes on large hams can be found here: tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LargeHam May 2, 2014 at 13:47
  • It's generally accepted that "ham", when used to refer to an amateur radio operator, is derived from "amateur" shortened to "am" and then given the leading "H" sound (which tends to happen to such abbreviations to make the pronunciation more "comfortable"). But the connotation of "ham" for an actor is different, and doesn't (currently) have a strong connection with "amateur".
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 31, 2014 at 18:49

7 Answers 7


ham actor. origin

  • an unskilled actor who overacts
  • a theatrical performer

ham acting

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.

Sources: https://www.wordnik.com/words/hamfatter

  • 1
    Interesting. etymonline suggests the song "has nothing to do with acting, so the connection must be with the quality of acting in minstrel shows, where the song was popular". I imagine old time thespians saying "You're fit only to sing 'The Ham-Fat Man', not to play Hamlet!" May 2, 2014 at 12:52
  • @Ilythya I think this is a better answer as it explains the etymology.
    – camden_kid
    May 2, 2014 at 15:15
  • @camden_kid Certainly it's more interesting but I suppose for utilitarian purposes you might prefer the accepted answer.
    – Casey
    May 2, 2014 at 20:26

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:

Ham in the sense 'performer who overacts', first recorded in the late 19th century, apparently comes from an earlier hamfatter 'bad actor', which may have been inspired by the Negro minstrel song 'The Ham-fat Man'.

This bolsters Ilythya’s answer; but john crow’s answer finds support, too, in Martin Harrison, The Language of Theatre (1993):

The most plausible derivation, with a more detailed and credible etymological story, is that in C19, before the invention of Leichner make-up, powder make-ups were combined with some form of grease or oil before application. Amateurs, or actors on a low income—that is, those who tended to be inferior—were forced to employ cheaper substances (rather than the professionals’ sophisticated oils) to apply their make-up, hence the nicknames ham-bone and ham-fat(ter) from the fact that they used ham-rind and other unpleasant greases as a medium. Ham-fatter may come directly from a negro minstrel song, ‘The Hamfat Man’.

Michael Macrone, Animalogies (1995) brings the “ham grease” and “Hamfat Man” theories together in a somewhat different way from Harrison [combined snippets]:

The title [“The Hamfat Man”] refers to the minstrels' use of hog grease to clean the black off their faces. It's very likely that the tune inspired the phrase ham actor or ham for short, although such epithets as hamfat man or hamfat actor may predate it. In any case "ham" appeared on its own by 1882, when someone referred to himself, in a letter to in a letter to Illustrated Sports and Drama News, as "no ham, but a classical banjo player."

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:

Ham fat, ham fat, zigga zolla zan,

Ham fat, ham fat, Tickle olla tan;

oh! Walk into de kitchen, as fast as you can,

Hoochee Koochee Koochee, says the Hamfat Man

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:

HAMFATTER. —A recent name in some quarters of New York, for a second-rate dude or masher, and more especially applied to the habitués of the Rialto in that city.

[Example:] I’ll warrant that these ladies who complain have, if the truth were known, strolled up and down Broadway by the Fifth Avenue Hotel and the Hoffman, and were they so fortunate as to receive an admiring glance from the well-dressed and more prosperous professional brother of the HAMFATTER, they were not offended, forsooth. —New York Herald, July 29, 1888.

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):

Every American who does not wish to be thought “small potatoes” or a “ham-fatter” or a “corner loafer,” is carefully “barbed” and fixed up in a hair-dressing saloon every day.

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:

”This is the first [circus] show I ever left in this way. I traveled with Forepaugh’s establishment four seasons, and never had any trouble. I’ve been with this show since the 12th of June last, having joined it at Clinton, Iowa. When DeHaven proposed this concert business, I told him I was no ham-fatter, and—“


“Yes, ham-fatter. That’s the name we give a man in our profession who is a poor performer. I’ve been in the business since I was ten years old, and I’m a little over twenty-five now.”

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):

Then comes the noted ham-fatter, CHARLIE FRYE. “If you can guess what he is doing you can have it.”

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):

According to tradition, ham fat was part of the equipment of old jazz musicians. A 1966 New Yorker piece on Louisiana music alludes to this claim: “Most of the musicians playing in these clubs are old men…. They’re hamfat musicians. In the old days, the rough musicians kept pieces of ham fat in their pockets to grease the slides of their trombones.” By the time [George] Sala used the word in his book [in 1879], it had become synonymous with a third-rate performer or other low-class person.


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.

UPDATE (3/24/2016): I consulted a new (to me) glossary of theater terms to see what it might add to the discussion. Here is the entry for ham in Don Wilmeth, The Language of American Popular Entertainment: A Glossary of Argot, Slang, and Terminology (1981) [combined snippets]:

Ham or ham actor. An amateur or professional actor who is affected, self-indulgent, or conceited, and who tends to strive for attention over the other actors on the stage by overplaying. A number of theories to the origin of this unflattering epithet have been posed. Two possibilities involve the operation of Tony Pastor, the early vaudeville manager. He had an act in his downtown establishment called "The Hamtown Students," a black-face quartet known for their exaggerated movements and the overblown nature of their act. Supposedly, whenever Pastor saw an actor who was overplaying he described him as a "ham." Others apparently used the full name, "Hamtown student." Another theory is that a poster at Pastor's Opera House in New York announced "sixty hams distributed on Monday evening." This offering of free hams, according to the theory, began to reflect poorly on the actors until they were known as "ham actors." H.L. Mencken suggested that it came from Hamlet, since all actors either claimed to have played Hamlet to great applause—or wished to play Hamlet. He further pointed out that an old name for an amateur was hambone. It has been said that the term actually came from a name associated with Hamish McCullough (1835–1885), who toured the "pig-sticking" towns of Illinois with a fit-up or portable company. His nickname was Ham and his troupe was called Ham's actors. The most sensible origin is that the word is short for hamfatter, the emollient or lard derived from pork and ham used by old-time actor and minstrel men to remove their makeup. It was common before the advent of cold cream and later, when col cream was available, was just as effective and cheaper.

  • I would also add that on British TV there used to be a BBC TV show called The Black and White Minstrel Show, and if memory serves me correctly they really overdid/played the Al Jolson thing, strumming banjos, and over gesticulating. It was hugely popular in its day, along with golliwogs... I don't know if anything similar existed in America. But if ever performers "hammed", it was them.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 24, 2016 at 9:03
  • +1 nice answer - I forgot about this old question. Off-topic btw :)
    – user66974
    Mar 24, 2016 at 9:05

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.

  • Do you have any references which backup your answer? It's a very interesting one, and one which sheds light on the meaning of "ham actor " and "hamming it up"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 31, 2014 at 12:30
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    my dad told me this as a 5yo why do Amateur radio operators get called Hams? my dad told the story of Theatrical makeup made from pig fat and how some poor theatrical performers over used it. in the time of Shakespeare.
    – john crow
    Oct 31, 2014 at 13:01
  • its ok to edit my post its your website
    – john crow
    Oct 31, 2014 at 13:09
  • Oops Ur not the website moderator
    – john crow
    Oct 31, 2014 at 13:29

It seems to be a rather British term and describes a mediocre or overacting actor.

hammy adj. (informal)

used to ​describe an ​actor or ​acting that is ​unnatural and uses too much ​emotion

Source: Cambridge Dictionaries Online


In the bible, Noah's son Ham over reacted to seeing his father naked and drunk. When someone is over acting or doing something to get more attention, they are said to be hams or are hamming it up.

  • None of Noah's progeny were named after cold cuts. What are you on about?
    – user234461
    Aug 8, 2018 at 12:41
  • @user234461 Why is this downvoted so much? It's an interesting theory even if the text in Genesis doesn't necessarily support it directly... And what are you on about? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_of_Ham
    – mootinator
    Jun 7, 2020 at 23:35

Interesting evolution of the term: going ham in the video gaming community usually means trying too hard at an attempt at a goal and ultimately failing. For example, someone in a competitive game might take on 3 other players in a situation where he or she really can't take on that amount of competitors, but try anyway and ultimately fail. This is going too ham.

  • 1
    That phrase is an abbreviation of hard as a m*****f***** and not related to the acting term.
    – Lawton
    May 3, 2014 at 2:34
  • I have never heard that before, can you back up your claim? May 4, 2014 at 18:17
  • Check, for example, Kanye West song H.A.M. or the urban dictionary entry for the origin of the slang
    – Lawton
    May 4, 2014 at 21:33
  • The term "full ham" has been used long before that song. This is just a common misconception spawned from it. I remember it being used as far back as 2005, and there is even an urban dictionary post somewhat related to it dated 2010. Before the song, which was in 2011. Dec 12, 2018 at 8:56

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