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Once "email"* entered the lexicon, we needed a term to differentiate it from what we can call regular, hand-delivered mail. One term in broad usage is "snail mail." But in a project I'm working on, we need a term that is more formal and businesslike.

As currently written, the copy reads: "Terrestrial mail."

I'm looking for a good term to replace "Terrestrial." Any ideas?

(*AP Stylebook has eliminated the hyphen.)

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does terrestrial mail excludes air mail? – Lie Ryan Dec 3 '11 at 12:30
I feel "paper mail" is much better than "postal mail". Paper mail rarely goes by "the post" these days. It's either a courier service, or, you very likely mean some sort of intra-office thing. – Joe Blow Jun 14 '15 at 12:56
is it possible you're looking for "written confirmation" or "in writing" ? (I realise it can be ambiguous with email!) – Joe Blow Jun 14 '15 at 12:57
up vote 29 down vote accepted

Postal mail is the usual term when one needs to be formal. "Terrestrial mail" is not in use and would likely cause at least some confusion.

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This may be an acceptable term. I fully understand the remarks above, that "mail" in and of itself should be sufficient. However, we have two major operations - one involving email and one concerning snail mail, and it is necessary to sharply mark the difference. Any possibility of confusion needs to be eliminated. Thank you for your answer. – The Raven Dec 2 '11 at 19:50
@TheRaven: This should do it, then; no one would think of email when they read "postal mail" or snail mail when they read "email". It would also be possible to describe them as "by post" and "by email" but that might introduce slight confusion for some Americans. – Charles Dec 2 '11 at 19:59
In Australia I've never heard postal mail. It does get 5 million Google hits for the whole world, but when restricting the search to just Australia gets only 150k hits, the first of which at least seems really strange to me: "Know how to manage your postal mail online like Mail 2 Email Redirection, ..." – hippietrail Dec 8 '11 at 10:18
@hippietrail: What terms are common in Australia when differentiating from email? – Charles Dec 8 '11 at 20:07
@Charles: I haven't been aware of any non-IT type people trying to differentiate yet and I'm not in Australia right now to keep an ear out, sorry. – hippietrail Dec 16 '11 at 13:02

Simply "mail" by itself may be sufficient. If you need to specifically reference physical mail delivered by the Post Office then "Postal Mail" may be preferable.

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It may be the case that postal mail is a formal term; I don't know if it is or isn't, but clearly it suffers from redundancy and ambiguity, and is used less commonly than regular mail.

Alternatives such as regular mail, physical mail, paper mail, and surface mail all have been used, as shown by a 1995-2008 ngrams for "snail mail,postal mail,regular mail,surface mail,air mail,paper mail,physical mail": enter image description here

Every one of the terms has problems: postal mail, redundancy and ambiguity (does it mean threatening notes?); regular mail, ambiguity (does it mean email or paper mail?); physical mail, clumsy; paper mail, informal; surface mail, inexact (more paper mail goes by air nowadays). Physical mail is the only one of these terms increasing in use at the moment, but still is least used.

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I thought "surface mail" was a term specifically invented in opposition to airmail, back when airmail was a new and exciting thing. – Random832 Dec 2 '11 at 21:21
I don't know the etymology of "surface mail"; you might be right; in any case, I recall the term being used, rightly or wrongly, to distinguish snailmail and email when email was new. – jwpat7 Dec 2 '11 at 21:53
if you add "mail" to that list it outshines the rest. – Eric Dec 3 '11 at 0:15
In a world where email is sent much more often than postal mail, I'm sure there will be people, especially younger ones, that would assume that "regular mail" is "email" – Lie Ryan Dec 3 '11 at 12:32
"postal mail" might be redundant in the world where only "postal service" provides mailing service. But nowadays when Internet also provides mailing service, IMO it is no longer redundant. – Lie Ryan Dec 3 '11 at 12:36

Just mail for the same reason there's no such place as East Virginia.

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Now I have a new name for my next Daughter! – user179700 Dec 3 '11 at 0:33
@user179700: "snail mail" or "East Virginia"? – Kris Dec 3 '11 at 10:58
Snail Mail if it is a girl, Snail Male if a boy. – user179700 Dec 16 '11 at 6:39

The term I immediately thought of is "postal service".

I've never heard it used to cover electronic mail and it scores higher in Google Ngrams than all the other terms, and it wasn't a newly invented term after the rise of e-mail. Also, it's perfectly formal.


One minor drawback is that it surely won't work as a drop-in replacement in all possible uses.

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For the exclusive purpose of distinguishing from email, you could probably use conventional mail. I am of course, aware that email is already quite the conventional mail today!

However, the common idea of that phrase is such that it still evokes images of postal, courier and other modes of physical delivery (you might have already considered physical as well), including surface, air and sea mail.

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Or old-fashioned mail. – hippietrail Dec 8 '11 at 10:14

I think that the answers were given by others, above. However, if you want to use a similarly silly word to "terrestrial," in relation to "mail," try tellurian, telluric, terrene, gaian, hyperchthonic (my coinage). Are you writing about mail on Earth as opposed to intergalactic, extraterrestrial mail?

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You forgot sublunar! – hippietrail Dec 8 '11 at 10:14

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