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Why do we call snail mail "snail mail"?

So by default mail will refer to email?

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If you want to say "snail mail" without sounding so negative, you can use "postal mail", "regular mail", or simply "post" ("send it to me by post"). – celik791 May 9 '11 at 11:51
cause it rhymes, and snails are slow like regular mail. – Mitch Dec 2 '11 at 20:34

2 Answers 2

up vote 15 down vote accepted

"Snail mail" is an example of a retronym, coined to distinguish the old type of something (in this case "mail") from a newer meaning.

In this case, the retronym is disparaging: neutral alternatives could be "letter mail" or "post".

For some people it may be the case that "mail" will usually mean "e-mail", just as for some people "guitar" means "electric guitar" and "hockey" means "ice hockey". (I suspect this will be more true in the UK, where "post" is more common than "mail" for the traditional service). And in context, "mail" can certainly mean "e-mail".

But out of context it won't necessarily have that meaning.

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The only thing this answer needs is to explain that snail-mail seemingly travels at a snail's pace, compared to e-mail. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 May 9 '11 at 12:45

No, E-mail is E-mail, which comes from Electronic Mail, therefore "Mail" is the general term for "letters and packages conveyed by the postal system" (NOAD).

Snail Mail is still the standard, ordinary Mail system, but this expressions simply highlights its intrinsic slowness, being opposed to the E-mail that is fast.

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Allow me to politely disagree. In general usage, "mail" means regular postal mail. In situations where there may be confusion between regular mail and email, the somewhat tongue-in-cheek construction "snail mail" makes the distinction explicit. (Also, note that AP style now prefers "email," lowercased sans hyphen. This doesn't settle the matter, but "E-mail" is on the way out.) – The Raven May 9 '11 at 14:02
@The Raven: No problem for disagreeing, but the only part where you seem to disagree is about "E-mail vs email"... The other things you wrote seem to state the same things I wrote... Am I wrong? – Alenanno May 9 '11 at 14:10
Well, Alenanno, perhaps we don't disagree at all. My take on your reply was that "snail mail" was not coined due to slowness per se in physical post, but that we needed way to flag regular mail (a retronym) once email burst on the scene. – The Raven May 9 '11 at 15:41
My answer was meant this way: "Snail Mail" is still the usual one but you use this expression when you want to be specific about the type of mail (letter vs electronic) highlighting the main difference between those two types. :) – Alenanno May 9 '11 at 17:26
I withdraw any suggestion of disagreement - we're on the same page, amigo. – The Raven May 9 '11 at 18:10

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