Adventures in Letter Writing No. 39: Snails and Soapboxes

Please can we talk about the term “Snail Mail”? I don’t mean to be controversial but it’s just I don’t think it accurately describes letters through the post. It always feels derogatory too, or have I got that wrong, like somehow sending a letter is antiquated and hobby-ish, which I suppose it is to some extent, but personally I don’t think you can compare it to anything else.  The obvious comparison is email, which is great and handy, and can be lovely to receive, but it truly isn’t the same as pen and paper and envelope and stamp.  They are both communication, granted, but one is electronic, typed, probably never printed off, and lost for eternity, whereas a handwritten letter is physical, written, well-travelled, delivered by hand via van, train and plane (or combination of) and most likely treasured forever. I like snails (on the whole) but I don’t think it’s fair to label our wonderful and advanced postal services (I promise I don’t have shares) as being that slow. Is it?

Am I over-thinking this? Maybe it’s just a cutesy term and helps people to define what they are referring to but I’m not sure. Snails are not what I think of when I post my letter.  In fact I’m always astounded at how fast my ramblings travel over actual real miles across the country or round the world.  I think a membership pack I sent recently from here in Dorset got to America in less than five days.  Maybe if it had gone by stagecoach and steamliner “snail mail” might’ve been OK, but 1) I’d still have been impressed, and 2) I still don’t think the term works.  Maybe it’s just because it rhymes.  I wonder who came up with the expression. I always imagine it was someone working in IT who had a superiority complex over their messaging invention in a “Oh no, writing a letter! That’s sooo outdated. So snail mail. You want superhighway fast digital communication mail instead” type way. Perhaps it wasn’t like that at all but it sort of makes me feel a bit affronted on behalf of Royal Mail. Maybe Royal Mail don’t mind at all.

Perhaps I need to get over myself and just embrace “the snail”. Lots of people love the idea and I promise I’m not out to upset anyone. It’s only an opinion to ponder. And I suppose snails are quite cute when you see them sliding along. They do have a place in the grand scheme of things after all. Seriously, what’s my problem?! Kids’ TV even anthropomorphised them in Gordon the Garden Gnome with Horis and Doris the visiting snails, and Les and Des, the resident slugs, but then perhaps I’m just annoyed they eat all my veggies and flowers so don’t want to associate them with my letter writing too. Perhaps I love to think of my letter whizzing along road and rail like in “This is the Night Mail” rather than going interminably slow like a mollusc. And please know that I am always open to persuasion and a good debate. It’s just to compare our beloved post as being as slow as a snail, I think definitely it isn’t.

Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox now…



5 thoughts on “Adventures in Letter Writing No. 39: Snails and Soapboxes

  1. Liz says:

    Your blog set me thinking…………… and yes I know I still haven’t written you a letter and posted it! But the term “snail mail” did remind me of a time when we lived in rural Somerset and the nearest hamlet had a post box in a shady wall. Sadly this had to be closed due to the fact that although the mail was collected regularly, the snails regularly decided to sabotage the postal system and eat the mail. The poor postman had to brush all letters off before bagging them!

    So I decided to look up the origins of the phrase and it appears to have first been used as early as 1942 in an article posted in the Lowell Sun, (a newpaper in Lowell, Massachusetts) however, not until it was common to use Emails to transfer messages and information in the early 1990’s, the slowness of conventional mail became so blunt. So, like so many words or phrases, it obviously originated in America.

    Thank you for encouraging me to research this and now I have learnt another usesless fact today – I will now set pen to paper and write to you!

    1. D1nah_ says:

      Thanks Liz, that’s really interesting. I’m going to find a photo of a postbox in Beeny, Cornwall, that solved the same problem. It’s really simple and effective (I think!). Looking forward to hearing from you!

  2. Jackie Flaherty says:

    I can see your point and have a friend whose husband is a mail carrier and she feels exactly as you do. I think that it’s a case of rhyming, and also of comparison to the speed of email. I appreciate the mail and am impressed with how much they do, how quickly they do it and how affordable it is. I am not being derogatory when I use the term snail mail, although, usually, I just say mail.

    1. D1nah_ says:

      Thanks Jackie. No, course not, you’re right, the people who use the term probably are the ones that love writing letters. That’s interesting about your friend who’s husband is a postman. It’s funny how it still makes me want to say “Nooo, that’s not fair!” though. I quite like Liz’s reason that people call it Snail Mail. Pesky things will eat anything!?

  3. Terri B, says:

    From pony express to snail mail.
    One time in our history it was the fastest way for news to travel, as we turn our time clocks forward it is now the slowest way for news to travel.
    Amazing progress or loss of intimacy ?
    I do love receiving letters,cards,art.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *