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While pondering this question asked earlier today, I started to wonder why post (in the sense of correspondence) is used in British English but not American English.

So I looked up the etymology of mail in Etymonline, seeking information about when the usages diverged.

I found something really interesting that I hadn't known before:

mail (n.1)

"post, letters," c. 1200, "a traveling bag," from Old French male "wallet, bag, bundle," from Frankish *‌malha or some other Germanic source, from Proto-Germanic *‌malho- (cognates: Old High German malaha "wallet, bag," Middle Dutch male "bag"), from PIE *‌molko- "skin, bag." Sense extension to "letters and parcels" (18c.) is via "bag full of letter" (1650s) or "person or vehicle who carries postal matter" (1650s). In 19c. England, mail was letters going abroad, while home dispatches were post. Sense of "personal batch of letters" is from 1844, originally American English.

So at least up to 19th century, in England, post was domestic or local mail (from the original sense of sticking something to a post in the town square where all the locals could see it), and mail was international mail (because originally that was the stuff you had to give a guy who had a leather bag and wandered around a lot).

Does this distinction between post and mail still exist in contemporary BrE? If not, is there any current distinction between the words? When is each used in modern BrE discourse? If the distinction has waned or the senses merged, when did that happen, and what accounts for he change?

Also, side question: is a mailbox (or any variety) referred to as simply a post (without the -box suffix) in any register of contemporary BrE?

Notes:

1. For clarification, I am not asking about the different uses of post and mail in AmE vs BrE; this question is solely concerned with BrE, and the distinction, if any, between these words in the UK. AmE is not relevant, here.

2. I'm mostly thinking about England here, but would be interested to hear about usage in any of the other UK countries or Ireland.

  • In England, where AmE speakers say mail, BrE speakers say post: it has yet come in the mail versus It hasn't yet come in the post. Or: I'll mail the letter today versus I'll post the letter today. I had never heard of your "international mail" distinction. – Lambie May 2 '16 at 15:59
  • Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/189665/… – user66974 May 2 '16 at 15:59
  • @Lambie Yes, I'm aware of that distinction, it's what prompted me to read Etymonline in the first place, where I discovered the (historical) distinction between mail and post in BrE (unrelated to how the words were being used in "the colonies"). Is mail used in contemporary BrE at all? If so, does it have any different shades of meaning from post? Also, have you ever heard of a mailbox/postbox referred to simply as a post? – Dan Bron May 2 '16 at 16:02
  • @Lambie, agreed. We're more likely to say 'post a letter' or 'it's in the post', but we're also very familiar with 'mail', and after all, our national service is called the 'Royal Mail'. – David Garner May 2 '16 at 16:02
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    From Structure, Word Semantics & Word-formation by Leonhard Lipka - books.google.it/… – user66974 May 2 '16 at 16:12
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No, there is no distinction between 'mail and 'post' in British English. 'Post' is used wherever 'mail' would be used in American English. 'Mail' is going to be understood by almost everyone, but 'post' is the common usage.

Post boxes are never referred to as 'posts'. Posts are tall thin things stuck in the ground

  • Thanks! Is there any way you can dig up some data to support the interchangeability of the two words in contemporary BrE? I expect that to be difficult to do, so don't worry about it if you can't. I realize I may have to rely on the experiences of native BrE speakers and the consensus evidenced by voting patterns. – Dan Bron May 2 '16 at 16:29
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    Nope, just forty years of using the language. – DJClayworth May 2 '16 at 16:31
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    However, just to add a bit of spice, Royal Mail is currently celebrating the quincentenary of the establishment of the Master of the Posts by Henry VIII. – Andrew Leach Sep 16 '16 at 7:54
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The term "post" comes from Old French "poste". It figuratively mean "courier". Etymologically, and it refers dually to the:

1) The action of "porre" (Latin); to place, to put, to arrange, etc...

2) The noun of "porre" (Latin); places, posts, positions, etc... the postal network that the courier uses to deliver the cargo.

(The two meanings are clearly defined by the time Italian starts using the term "posta" as a verb [1] and noun [2], which is when the French start using the term to refer to a network for carrying mail.).

The term "mail" comes from the Old French "mail". While literally meaning "travel bag", it figuratively means "cargo".

The United Stated are using the terms more correctly, since "mailing the post" would mean "delivering the courier as cargo" (or "cargoing the courier").

For British English to make sense:

1) The term "post" needs to refer to the letters/parcels being handles by the postal service, which is similar to referring to the results/websites you find on Google as "Google".

2) The term "mail" would need to become a verb, which is like how the noun "Google" became a verb.

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