A post the other day entitled “The Hidden Treasures of Snail Mail” in the blog The Task at Hand made me remember that the English word mail originally designated the bag in which letters were carried rather than the letters themselves. Middle English acquired the word from Old French male [modern French malle] ‘bag,’ but it had come into Old French from a Germanic language.

From mail, of course, has come electronic mail, quickly shortened to e-mail and increasingly written without the hyphen as email. Spanish frequently uses the English term now, too, alongside the longer correo electrónico.

The Old French diminutive of male was malete, with a suffix that’s the cognate of Spanish -ita. Old French malete passed into Spanish as maleta, a versatile word whose meanings now include ‘case, suitcase,  trunk, traveling case, luggage compartment, automobile trunk, attache case, valise.’ Spanish speakers refer to a small maleta as a maletita, a word that is etymologically a double diminutive. An Internet search even turns up a few examples of maletitita, which is etymologically a triple diminutive. That’s a lot of diminutives to pack into a small (but expandable) suitcase.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Oct 13, 2013 @ 13:55:18

    Very interesting. Perhaps it helps to explain why my British friends refer to “letter boxes” rather than “mail boxes”, and to letter carriers rather than mail carriers.

    I remember early Westerns sometimes showed Pony Express riders doing a quick hand-off of the bag, and I found this in the Pony Express wiki: ” At each station… the express rider would change to a fresh horse, taking only the mail pouch called a mochila (from the Spanish for pouch or backpack) with him. The employers stressed the importance of the pouch. They often said that, if it came to be, the horse and rider should perish before the mochila did.”

    Interesting, too, that letters were bundled together and inserted as packets into the pouch at its four corners. Today, packets are part of our internet protocols.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 13, 2013 @ 14:56:07

      That’s a good point about British “letter boxes” rather than “mail boxes.” I’d never thought about it. I also didn’t know that the Pony Express used the Spanish term mochila, which nowadays is the word for ‘backpack.’ Nor did I know about packing the four corners of the mochila with packets. As for Internet protocols, we’ve gone from “sackets” to packets.


  2. Trackback: mail: another look | Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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