Also: Ham up
Meaning of Idiom ‘Ham It Up’
To ham it up is to overact or exaggerate emotions so that they become unbelievable. The idiom is often applied to actors but can also be applied to anyone who, when given attention, starts acting in an exaggerated way as if putting on a performance. As well, the idiom can mean to joke around or show-off.
“Brad Pitt always hams it up on screen. I don’t know why he’s such a popular actor.”
“When we were kids, Chuck always loved to ham it up in class. He got away with it because even the teacher thought he was funny.”
“The boss always hams up his speeches but make no mistake, he is brilliant.”
The idiom was first recorded in print during the 1930’s.
We often call bad but enthusiastic and energetic actors hams or ham actors. The idiom ham it up has the same origins. Before bad actors were called hams they were called hamfatters, a term especially associated with minstrel-show performers. The term probably derived from the ham fat that stage actors would use to remove stage makeup from their face.
These actors used lampblack to paint their faces black and appear to be African American. Lampblack was a carbon soot left over from the burning of oil lamps and was used to make black pigments. It was very difficult to remove and the actors were not paid very much money, so they could only afford lard, rather than cold cream, to help remove it.
An example of an actor who might have been referred to as a hamfatter in his own time is Charlie Chaplin, who, before he starred in his own silent films, was a successful stage performer.
Chaplin himself, in an interview, told a story of being insulted by the term:
“I don’t care anything about dress. As I got off the train a newsie spotted me. ‘What do you think of that hamfat?’ he yelled to his companion. ‘One hundred thousand bucks a year, and he looks like a tramp.'” (Source)
In Chaplin’s case, “hamming it up” was an art unto itself and while today the term is pejorative, such performances, even by inexpert actors, were often quite amusing and enjoyable.
Hamfat, or lard, is mentioned in the minstrel song “The Ham-Fat Man” which is thought to be the origin of the term hamfatter and today’s shortened version, and another variation hambone which occurred during the 1890’s. At first only applied to actors who acted similar to minstrel-show performers and made elaborate faces, moved in exaggerated ways, and spoke loudly in efforts to upstage other actors, the term was extended by the mid-1900s to refer to anyone who acted in theatrical ways. It was also applied to circus clowns and today, it is often applied to comedians. (Source)
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