Mail and post: changing meanings

Mail and post: changing meanings

A BBC News Magazine webpage called ‘The Vocabularist’ recently featured an interesting discussion of the word ‘mail’. It includes the following remark:

“WH Auden famously wrote “This is the Night Mail, Crossing the Border” for a 1936 Post Office film. The border was that between England and Scotland, where border reivers, sometimes clad in chain mail, extorted “black mail” from the local people.”

It points out that there are three different meanings of the word ‘mail’ in this and they have different and unrelated origins, something I was unaware off as I had always assumed they had the same basis.

‘Mail’ in the sense of letters comes from an early French word ‘malle’ meaning of bag or travelling trunk, or in today’s parlance a bag or suitcase. When post was a private or state matter, it became common by the late 17th century to refer to a post-bag, the bag for carrying items of post in, as a ‘mail of letters’ and to call the coaches and boats carrying the post as mail-coaches and mail-boats. And by the mid-18th century there are references to the mail being read, indicating that meaning had been extended to the contents as well as the bag that posted letters were carried in.

‘Maille’ is another French-origin word and refers to chain mail as worn by knights and nobleman. Apparently, in a somewhat tortuous way it refers to the small links of chain in this kind of armor. Blackmail? An Anglo-Saxon word, ‘mail’, meant a payment; and over time it became linked with a Scots phrase ‘blak mail’. But where the ‘blak’ here came from or what it refers to is tantalisingly not explained.

The post… Hmm…. Now that is another interesting word with shifting meanings over time…

BBC News Magazine / The Vocabularist / Three different meanings of ‘mail’ (select ‘Language’ to follow the Vocabularist on the BBC News app)

Last updated: 14 April 2016


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