Mail and Post

The Crying of Lot 43046.

Dear Word Detective:  Why is a letter or parcel delivery service called “mail” or “post”? — Ray Earl.

That’s a darn good question.  Speaking of the US Postal Service, I discovered something odd the other day.  When we moved to this little town in rural Ohio a few years ago and I went to rent a Post Office box, the folks downtown gave me Box 1, which had recently been vacated.  Cool, thought I.  But some of the locals apparently thought I had pulled devious strings in Washington (or Zurich) to score such an exalted address, and they’ve evidently been seething with resentment ever since.  Who knew?  I figured they squinted at everyone that way.  Oh well, it’s all fodder for my memoirs, after which I’ll probably need a whole new zip code.

“Mail” and “post” in the “Oh look, here’s a letter from the IRS” sense are both very old words related to the process of sending a letter or package, but they spring from two separate aspects of that process.

The word “post,” as in “Post Office,” “postal worker” and the like (as well as the verb phrase “to post a letter”) harks back to the Medieval origins of the postal service in Europe.  The mail was carried in a relay system on horseback by riders who were “posted” at set intervals along the roads (called, naturally, “post roads”).  This “post” is not, it should be noted, the sort of pole stuck in the ground one might use to tether a horse.  It comes from the Latin “ponere,” meaning “to place,” and referred to the placing or “posting” of the riders along the route.  Speed, of course, was imperative in transporting mail by such a primitive system, and the word “posthaste,” which we use today to mean “quickly,” is a relic of the days when “haste, post, haste” was scrawled on letters to encourage quick delivery.

The “mail” we all eagerly await every day (and, around here, await, and await) takes its name not from the letters and packages themselves, but the bag used to carry them in early postal systems.  The Old French word “male” meant “bag or satchel,” and was used in the 13th century to mean the mailbag carried by the relay riders.  Eventually the term “mail” (as the spelling had developed) was transferred from the bags and applied to the letters and parcels within.  This “mail,” incidentally, is unrelated to “chain mail,” the metal body armor worn by knights, which comes from another Old French word, “maille,” meaning “mesh.”

Both “mail” and “post” are verbs as well, of course, although there are usage differences between the US and the UK.  Over here in the US, we “mail” letters, but “post” is more the British habit.

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