This is the time of year when our mailboxes (I mean the real kind, not the electronic ones) are filled with all manner of material—catalogs, Christmas cards, ads for caviar and candy, and cunning come-ons for charitable contributions. In the United States, that mail is delivered by the United States Postal Service. In Britain, the post is delivered by the Royal Mail. Ask an Englishman if the “mail” has come, and he will probably figure out what you mean, but it will sound odd to him, just as it would if you ask an American if the “post” has come.
The word post is derived from the Latin posta and French poste, and originally meant a “stand, or station.” From the late sixteenth century the word applied to men on horseback (think Pony Express) stationed at appropriate intervals on a road (later called a post-road), whose duty it was to ride with packets containing the King’s dispatches. Pals of the King soon persuaded him to let the riders carry their messages, too, and the modern postal system began.
Mail is a word from Old High German malha and Dutch maal, meaning a “bag, packet, or wallet.” By 1654 people were talking about a “mail of letters,” meaning a batch of letters packaged up to be delivered by post. By 1674 post and mail were used synonymously, to mean the letters (in a packet) carried by the post-riders.
In the United States, by 1890, mail by itself was used to mean the batch of letters delivered to a specific person.
Both Post and Mail have become popular names for newspapers, since the earliest news was conveyed by means of letters carried by the post-riders. You might think it a bit redundant that there is one newspaper, in Columbia City, Indiana, that calls itself The Post & Mail.
At the Bard of Buffalo Bayou’s home, the postman always rings twice. That’s to rouse the Bard from the stupor in which he is sometimes found, while spinning gossamer verses like the following:
Every time I get a letter,
I wish that it were something better,
Awarding me a Nobel Prize,
A year’s supply of chocolate pies,
Admission to the hall of heroes,
Perhaps a check with lots of zeroes,
An invitation from a hottie
To come and meet some literati,
Or just a notice with the news
I’ve won a Caribbean cruise.
Instead—rejection slips from editors,
Snarky claims from nasty creditors,
Piles of bills I thought I’d paid,
Appeals for cash I can’t evade;
A magazine that I desired
Says my subscription has expired;
My bank insists I’m overdrawn,
My broker says my nest egg’s gone.
Mister Postman—I surrender,
Take this junk, return to sender.