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Column: HAM? HAM radio? ham radio? Amateur Radio? amateur radio!

Dan, KB6NU

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:

The brochure refers to “HAM radio” and “HAM radio operators.”

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 cwgeek@kb6nu.com.

Permanent link to this article: http://w4cae.com/column-ham-ham-radio-ham-radio-amateur-radio-amateur-radio/


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  1. Tom Francis

    Another useless discussion on whether we’re “hams” “HAMs”, Amateur Radio Enthusiasts, etc. – I’ve seen this discussion many times over the 50+ years I’ve been in the hobby – the designation is ham radio and ham radio operators. Nothing more needs to be said because that’s what we are – have been and will always be. But, it will reenter the discussion because it crops up every ten years or so by some “professional PR pro” who just got licensed and thinks that we need to standardize the nomenclature. Silly discussion. Shut up, get out and operate. 🙂

    Best regards,

    Tom – W1TEF

  2. Craig

    How about hamateur radio? Just kidding! Though I dislike the slang terms ham or ham radio and prefer the term amateur radio.

    Let’s get on to something serious: The use of capital K instead of lower case k to represent kilo. K is defined as the symbol for Kelvin, and k for kilo. Improper usage is well, improper, and shows won too bee sumwhat ileterate…

    Sea mor at https://physics.nist.gov/cuu/Units/rules.html

    1. KK4DSD

      Sure, unless the proper name of the event has it written in uppercase, as almost every running/biking event does, such as the Harbison 50K.

      1. Craig

        That does make it difficult, but it is compounding an error. Perhaps mark it as any other spelling error. i.e., Harbison 50K(sp).

  3. Kris Harrison

    First, let me say I agree with everything said about our hobby’s name. There must be a better name to use. Several non-radio people mentioned to me they thought we were called “Hams” because many of the operators are rotund, i.e. ham as in “from the pig.” Another associate loves to say — particularly when one of us makes a high profile faux pas on the air: “Well, that’s why they call it ‘amateur radio.’ ” Fair or unfair, there it is.
    So the names need attention.
    But, that having been said, it also needs to be said that the term “HAM” is actually an acronym, and technically should be capitalized.
    In the early days, circa 1910, one could pick his own call sign. Three op’s from the Harvard Radio Club chose to name theirs “Hyman-Almy-Murry” for Albert Hyman, Bob Almy, and Poogie Murray. Well, in CW, that’s pretty long, so it evolved to HYALMU — soon to be confused with a seafaring ship by the name “Hyalmo.”
    So, the name was reduced to “HAM” which, because it’s an abbreviation of three last names using their first letters, can be capitalized. That’s not the end of the story by any means with US Congressional hearings using it, but it’s where I’ll stop. Something must be left for “Enquiring Minds.” [sic]
    So, Tom, did I win the prize for useless information? I can’t take credit. Someone else did the research. But it’s so old it’s in the public domain. Like me.
    Kris — NK4K

  4. Michael KM4MAP

    I think amateur radio is the way to go. When I tell people I
    am going to a ham fest they think I am going to eat.

  5. Tim Mousseau

    The trick is to up amateur radio’s visibility so that anyone in the general public will know and appreciate that ham radio and amateur radio are the same thing.

    Wikipedia offers an alternative history concerning the etymology of the term “ham”:

    “The term “ham” was first a pejorative term used in professional wired telegraphy during the 19th century, to mock operators with poor Morse code sending skills (“ham-fisted”).[10][11][12][13] This term continued to be used after the invention of radio and the proliferation of amateur experimentation with wireless telegraphy; among land- and sea-based professional radio operators, “ham” amateurs were considered a nuisance. The use of “ham” meaning “amateurish or unskilled” survives today in other disciplines (“ham actor”).

    The amateur radio community subsequently began to reclaim the word as a label of pride,[14] and by the mid-20th century it had lost its pejorative meaning. Although not an acronym, it is often mistakenly written as “HAM” in capital letters.”

    Tim W9AH

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