Word Play: Mail

word play words Mar 22, 2021

I love reading letters. And, not just the letters addressed to me in the post. I love reading the letters of great men and women of the past. I have dozens of books in my library that catalog the correspondence of heroes like Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Chalmers, Charles Spurgeon, Andrew Bonar, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Alas, such books may be a dying breed—because mail itself is very nearly extinct. We moderns don’t often write letters anymore.

We text, we tweet, we ping; we Instagram and Pinterest. But we don’t write letters.

We blog, we Skype, we Vimeo, and we YouTube. We Google, we Dropbox, and we iCloud; we like, we friend, we follow; we yoo-hoo on Yahoo. We say hello on Ello. We chat on WhatsApp—and sometimes even on SnapChat. But we don’t write letters.

We Outlook, we Facebook, and we FaceTime; we DM, we IM, and we SMS; we e-mail, we v-mail, we G-Mail; some of us even AOL … LOL. But rarely do we write letters—you know, with real paper, ink, envelopes and stamps.

Nearly gone are the days of the mail room, the mail call, and the mail bag—and with them the perfumed letters and the wax seals, the flourishes of handwriting, the long discourses, the outpouring of heart and soul and mind, in complete sentences, with actual paragraphs (remember those?), with something akin to proper grammar and syntax.

Mail is now largely reserved for catalogs, ads, coupons, and bills. There may be an occasional thank you note, wedding invitation, or Christmas card—but even those are becoming scarce. Personal mail seems to have gone the way of smoke signals, Morse Code, telegrams, tickertapes, faxes, Blackberries, and MySpace.

We can trace the word mail, to an Old French term for a leather traveling bag or sack for keeping small articles of personal property. It was derived from malha, a Franklish word for a wallet, money bag, or haversack. Similar terms crop up in Medieval Dutch, Anglo Saxon, and Old High German.

By the middle of the seventeenth century the sense was extended to satchels full of letters. Soon, it became common parlance to use the term to not only describe the conveyance of packets and parcels, but the letters and notes themselves. And, by the eighteenth century, the term was even used to describe the whole system of transmission and delivery.

Robert Michael Pyle has quipped, “I've always felt there is something sacred in a piece of paper that travels the earth from hand to hand, head to head, heart to heart.” 

Likewise, Susan Lendroth has said, “To write is human, to get mail: Divine!”

And, you know, I think they’re right. So, however out of fashion it may be, I’m going to keep right on loving, sending, and receiving mail.


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