On the ARRL PR mailing list, we’ve been discussing the proper way to refer to amateur radio. What brought this up was an email from one list subscriber, Richard, WB6NAH, who was (rightfully) proud of the work that his club—the Skagit Amateur Radio Emergency Communications Club—was doing. He noted that they were even featured in the police department’s emergency preparedness brochure:
Referring to amateur radio in this way just drives me crazy. “Ham radio” is just a nickname for amateur radio, and “HAM” is certainly not an acronym for anything. I congratulated Richard on getting his club included in the brochure, but noted, “…it’s not HAM radio! It’s either ‘amateur radio’ or ‘ham radio’ (ham is not an acronym). I hate to be nitpicky about this, but as a professional writer, this usage just drives me crazy.”
He replied, “I agree on Amateur Radio, that was the city’s call.”
That kicked off the discussion.
One ham replied to me privately, “Thank you…I am continually trying to explain that it is not an acronym or abbreviation.”
Another replied to the list:
“The most correct term is “amateur radio” or alternatively “ham radio”, both written in normal case. If using “ham radio”, it is a best practice to first write “amateur (ham) radio” in the first non-header/non-title occurrence.
“Some will write “Amateur Radio” in proper noun format (first letters in caps) and while this may be acceptable to many and in certain venues, anyone using a style handbook will say it is incorrect. Less correct is to write “Ham Radio” in proper noun format as this is a slang term, albeit a popular one. Of course either term may be written as proper nouns when part of a title or name of an organization.
“Least correct is to write “HAM” in all caps; as stated by others, ham is not an abbreviation or acronym. Writing it as “HAM” is completely wrong, will drive many people bonkers, and should be avoided at all costs.”
Ward, N0AX, offered this explanation:
“To clarify where the capitalization originated, there is a long-standing ARRL Board Directive, decades old, stipulating that the words “Amateur Radio” be capitalized in ARRL publications and documents. Most non-amateur publications return it to the lower-case style that is used for non-proper nouns.”
One guy got a little miffed that we were wasting our time discussing this at all:
“You know, I’ve been reading this thread and I think people are getting too hung up on very minor details. The bottom line they got PR. So something wasn’t spelled right or capitalized, so what. The message got out and IMHO that’s the bottom line. Let’s not waste any more bandwidth on this.”
I agreed that it was great that they were included in the brochure, and that we were probably beating this topic to death, but I don’t think these are minor details. I said that PR professionals pride themselves on getting the details right. So should amateur radio PR people.
I’ll give the final word to Dan, AI4GK. He wrote:
“I don’t think that standardizing what we call ourselves qualifies as getting hung up on minor details. If we don’t have a standardized way of referring to us, how can we expect a public, who already is confused, to understand who we are?”
I don’t think that you can argue with this. Let’s avoid confusion by using “amateur radio” when writing about our hobby/service. I’d even urge the ARRL to rethink their use of “Amateur Radio.” Sometimes, it may be OK to use “ham radio,” but it’s just not correct to use “HAM radio” or just “HAM.”
Dan, KB6NU, is the author of the “No Nonsense” amateur radio license study guides and blogs about amateur radio at KB6NU.Com. When he’s not picking nits about the name of our hobby, he teaches ham radio classes and operates CW on the HF bands. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.