A good question from a child: why does a written/printed message sent through the mail (a letter) have the same name as an individual symbol in the alphabet (a letter)?

Wiktionary's etymology doesn't clear this up:

From Middle English letter, lettre, from Old French letre, from Latin littera (“letter of the alphabet"; in plural, "epistle”), from Etruscan, from Ancient Greek διφθέρᾱ (diphthérā, “tablet”).

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    Note the part of the etymology that says “in plural”: originally, the mailed letter was considered letters, i.e., a collection of individual letters, which makes sense. Somewhere along the way, this distinction was lost and the singular took over for both meanings. Sep 2 '18 at 8:15

The Latin word "littera" doesn't just mean "letter" but is also a word that means "literature," which means writings. If this does not satisfy, teach your child the word "missive" and be done with it.


It all started with Latin, where the term littera (from which letter via Old French lectre) mean both an althabetic letter and a a writing, a document.

  • c. 1200, "graphic symbol, alphabetic sign, written character conveying information about sound in speech," from Old French letre "character, letter; missive, note," in plural, "literature, writing, learning" (10c., Modern French lettre), from Latin littera (also litera) "letter of the alphabet," also "an epistle, writing, document; literature, great books; science, learning;" a word of uncertain origin.



The thing is that the envelope or the note in it or the paper on which the note is written is really not the "letter". The "letter" is what is written in the note or more precisely, the content of the note, some "letters" (alphabets). By generalization, we could call all of them a "letter", though.

Better do it before your kid asks about the house-owner.

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