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Today's Word



May 6, 2024
This week’s theme
Words related to mail

This week’s words
snail mail
mailed fist

snail mail
A public service ad that encourages the use of ZIP codes when mailing letters through the US Postal Service

Previous week’s theme
Words from geometry
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with Anu Garg

You’ve got mail.

Well, I first got mine in 1990. As a freshly minted software engineer, I worked in a telecom lab in New Delhi where I was given my first email account.

I wanted to go for higher education so I sent an electronic mail to Dr. Lee White, the head of computer science at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

When I arrived at work the next morning and logged in at my terminal, Dr. White’s reply was waiting for me. He had answered my questions and encouraged me to apply for grad school.

It felt like magic. Sending a message 8000 miles and receiving a reply back in a short time, even with a ten-and-a-half hour time difference.

Electronic mail became e-mail, which became email, which simplified further to just mail. Now, we use the retronym snail mail to differentiate it from electronic communications.

But there are many kinds of mails:
  • Email and postal mail, from Old French malle (bag)
  • Chain mail, an armor made of interlinked rings, from Old French maile (loop)
  • Blackmail, from Middle English male (rent or tribute)
These three types of mails are homonyms -- they have the same spelling and pronunciation -- but they are distinct words with distinct origins.

This week we’ll explore words that relate to one or more senses of the word mail.

Share your snail mail, email, chain mail, and other mail stories below or write to us at words@wordsmith.org include your location (city, state). You could even snail mail us at:

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Woodinville WA 98072-2155

snail mail


noun: The physical delivery of letters and other material. Also, a piece of such mail.
verb tr., intr.: To send a letter or other material by the postal system.

From snail, known for its sluggishness, from Old English snægl + mail, from Old French malle (bag). Earliest documented use: 1929.

Snail mail alludes to the slow speed of postal service compared to email. You’d think the term is relatively recent, but we have the earliest known use of the term from 1929, long before the Internet, even before computers. The OED cites an Indianapolis Star article in which the term snail mail was used because the letter arrived three years after mailing. The term remained largely unused until the rise of email, when it gained popularity as a way to distinguish traditional mail from digital communication. Snail mail as it has been popularized is an example of a retronym, a word coined to describe something when a new format takes over the former meaning. When electric guitars became popular, what was earlier simply a guitar had to be called an acoustic guitar. With the popularity of ebooks and audiobooks, now sometimes we have to explicitly specify paper books.

“Brent once told me you still keep up with your friends by snail mail, and I think that’s so special, but writing things by hand requires a personal touch.”
Ginny Baird; The Duplicate Bride; Entangled Publishing; 2020.

“He also hadn’t called, texted, snail mailed, or courier pigeoned.”
Elle Kennedy & Sarina Bowen; Him; Rennie Road Books ; 2021.

What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books. -Sigmund Freud, neurologist, founder of psychoanalysis (6 May 1856-1939)

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