mail: another look

In addition to the mail that has to do with communication, English has an unrelated mail that appears in stories about the Middle Ages. The 1913 Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary defined that kind of mail as ‘a flexible fabric made of metal rings interlinked. It was used especially for defensive armor.’ We find the word in the phrase coat of mail, which Spanish similarly renders cota de malla. English acquired mail from Old French maile [modern maille], which like Spanish malla had evolved from the Latin macula that meant ‘a spot, mark, stain.’ The connection is that when seen from a distance, malla/mail looks like an array of little spots or marks. French maille provides us one other connection, its derivative maillot. From the idea of a mesh fabric we’ve borrowed French maillot in the sense of ‘tights for dancers or gymnasts.’ A secondary meaning is ‘a woman’s one-piece bathing suit.’

Our anatomical and biological vocabulary has adopted the original Latin macula (which Spanish writes mácula) to mean, in the definition of Merriam-Webster’s, ‘an anatomical structure having the form of a spot differentiated from surrounding tissues.’ In particular, the macula lutea (often called simply macula) is ‘a small yellowish area in the eye that provides maximum visual acuity.’ The corresponding adjective is macular, as in the degeneración macular/macular degenertion that can trouble people’s vision. Also based on the original Latin noun is the adjective inmaculado/immaculate ‘free from stain or flaw.’ This is one of those cases where the negative form of a word is much more common than the positive form; in fact many people are surprised to find that maculado/maculate ‘flawed, sullied, stained’ even exists.

If the mention of a stain conjures up the Spanish noun mancha, that’s because mancha developed from Vulgar Latin *mancla or *mancula, a nasal variant of macula. (The Spanish region of La Mancha apparently takes its name from Arabic, not from mancha.) The corresponding verb manchar means ‘to stain.’

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Oct 28, 2013 @ 21:49:42

    I’ve heard the expression “chain mail” used to refer to a sort of armor. Now, it occurs to me that “chain letters” are a form of chain mail, too.

    I do remember maillot swimsuits. The word still was being used in places like the Sears catalog c.1950-1960. I’ve not seen the word for years, but of course that style of suit was more suited to Ava Gardner and Ingrid Bergman than Lady Gaga, so it’s no wonder it’s disappeared – at least as a marketing term.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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