Why do we call snail mail "snail mail"?

So by default mail will refer to email?

  • 2
    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
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 11:51
  • 3
    cause it rhymes, and snails are slow like regular mail.
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 20:34
  • The same reason that "sneakernet" is called "sneakernet".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 4, 2016 at 21:59

3 Answers 3


"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.

  • 7
    The only thing this answer needs is to explain that snail-mail seemingly travels at a snail's pace, compared to e-mail. Commented May 9, 2011 at 12:45

No, E-mail is E-mail, which comes from Electronic Mail. "Mail" is the general term for "letters and packages conveyed by the postal system" (NOAD), although it can also indicate electronic mail depending on the context.

Snail mail, or Postal 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.

  • 1
    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
    Commented May 9, 2011 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
    Commented May 9, 2011 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
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 15:41
  • 2
    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
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 17:26
  • I withdraw any suggestion of disagreement - we're on the same page, amigo.
    – The Raven
    Commented May 9, 2011 at 18:10

There are 2 kinds of mail:

  • postal mail aka post
  • electronic mail aka email

When somebody says “mail” they may be referring to one or the other or even both.

If most of your mail is email, you are probably referring to email when you say “mail.” If most of your mail is postal mail, you are probably referring to postal mail when you say “mail.”

To disambiguate the word “mail,” the term “snail mail” was coined to refer to postal mail. The relative slowness of postal mail delivery as compared to electronic mail delivery is analogized to the slowness of a snail. But it is not the case that postal mail has any more right to the word “mail” than email does. Same as landline phones do not have any more right to the word “phone” than cell phones do. I can write a letter to you without knowing how I will send it — then I can mail it to you. Whether I used electronic mail delivery or postal mail delivery is irrelevant. If we have a phone conversation today and I am on a cell phone and you are on a landline phone, we are still having a phone conversation.

You can see examples of email just being called “mail” in many places:

  • Apple’s email client, which goes back to 1988, is called simply “Mail”

  • email servers all across the Internet are named like “mail.apple.com”

  • the email protocol prefix (circa 1970?) is “mailto:” — your full email address is really “mailto:[email protected]

Also notice that prefixes like “electric” and “electronic” and “cyber” tend to get dropped once electricity, electronics, and the Internet (respectively) become ho-hum everyday things. So one can expect “electronic mail” to devolve into “mail” even if it was the only kind of mail.

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