There are two topical reasons for discussing this word. British newspapers this week have reported rumours, quickly denied, that the British government is thinking of privatising the Royal Mail. And I came across a survey which predicted that the number of people on the Internet, and the number of e-mail messages that they would generate, would increase seven-fold in the next four years.
To judge by the number of messages I get asking for advice about the differences between American and British English, the old saying about us being “two nations separated by a common language” is still true. What so often stops one dead for a moment are not the big things but the subtleties of usage, of which mail is a good example. It’s commonly said that it’s the American word for what the British call post, which is very broadly true, though far from the whole story.
The difference between the two words is that between the method of transportation and the thing being transported. From medieval times mail, often spelled male until the seventeenth century, was a pack or travelling bag (the modern French malle for a box or trunk is a close cousin). It was in the seventeenth century that the need appeared for a specific word meaning a bag that contained letters and mail was applied to this. Through the process of transference that often occurs in such cases it had become by the following century the word for the letters themselves.
The related sense of post came to us from Latin through Italian and French in the sixteenth century. The original Latin word meant “position; placing” and the idea in the English term was that of placing riders at intervals along a road so as to carry letters at speed by a relay system, hence post-haste. The word also turns up in such compounds as post-chaise and post-horse, both with the same idea of travelling by stages between stations called posting-houses or post-houses; the short-lived American Pony Express used just this idea. Again, it was not long before the word began to be applied to the things being carried rather than the method of carriage.
Both words commonly turn up in the names of newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as elsewhere in the English-speaking world, expressing the fact that the only good way to get the news before the telegraph and telephone was by letters from correspondents. There are many British examples, such as the Daily Mail, the Bristol Evening Post and the Evening Mail; in North America there are the Washington Post, Toronto Globe and Mail and the Cincinnati Post among many others. We even have the Birmingham Post and Mail, preserving the older distinction between the two words.
There had long been a system in England for transporting the letters of the monarch from place to place, literally the royal mail, which had been opened to the public as the result of a royal proclamation in 1635. It was in the time of the Commonwealth after the Civil War that the name post office began to be applied to the department that organised this new public postal system, as expressed in an Act of Parliament of 1657: “From henceforth there be one General Office, to be called and known by the name of the Post-Office of England; and one Officer ... appointed ... under the Name and Stile of Postmaster-General of England, and Comptroller of the Post-Office”. From then on, the terms Post Office and Royal Mail were virtually equivalent, the former being the agency responsible for transporting the latter.
Both words are still commonly used in both British and American English, though in slightly different contexts. There is still a small distinction between mail as the thing transported and post as the method of doing so, as instanced by the closely similar definitions of mail in the American Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary: “letters, packages, etc., that are sent or delivered by means of the postal system” and in the British New Oxford Dictionary of English: “letters and parcels sent by post”. But our usage is inconsistent on both sides of the Atlantic, and in recent years some American senses have begun to infiltrate British usage.
The American organisation may be called the United States Post Office, but a letter carrier is often a mailman and the posting receptacle a mail box, although the sorter is a postal worker. However, it is pretty much true in North America that the word post, either as noun or verb, turns up in compounds and not by itself. In Britain, the equivalent organisation is officially the Post Office, though the Royal Mail is still very much in existence, these days as the trading title of a principal part of the Post Office. We put our outgoing communications in a postbox and they are delivered at the other end by a postman or postwoman. There are still methods of transport in use such as mail trains and mail ships (the RMS Titanic was a Royal Mail Steamship), though we call a combined delivery van and passenger vehicle a postbus. We would say that “your cheque’s in the post” rather than in the mail, and announce “I’m just going out to post a letter” rather than to mail it. The American originators of the Internet automatically described the messaging system as e-mail and the person in charge of an e-mail system as its postmaster, following standard practice; but those who developed Usenet newsgroups and electronic bulletin boards used post, because that’s what you do with notices.
In both countries, a mailbag is the name for a sack that contains letters, but only in the US is it a figurative term for the pile of missives that arrives on one’s desk after some public exposure, what we in Britain would call a postbag. Both nations have postage stamps and post offices, but Americans order by mail while the British do so by post, though both countries buy things through the medium of mail order. In both countries one may find oneself on a mailing list, but only in Britain may one as a result receive a communication by means of a mailshot.
I rest my case. But no doubt I’ve missed some subtleties, and I’ll have a big postbag of corrective e-mail messages waiting for me after the weekend.