posted, post and mail

On to April's queries--with the goal of getting through them before the term starts.

On a visit to Colorado, Chris was puzzled:
Lining the roads were expanses of trees, and every so often I'd see a sign nailed to a tree that said "Posted."

Nothing else.
We have signs like this in my native New York state, too, and many, if not most, other states--though whether they can get away with just saying Posted might vary. The longer form of the sign would say Posted: No Trespassing, and we could refer to the area of land with these signs at its borders as posted land. In other words, the sign is saying that the land is privately owned (or at least not open to the public) and that you are not allowed to be on the land without the owner's permission, and that because signs have been 'posted' you have been warned of this fact. These kinds of signs, in my experience, are particularly used in wooded areas of countryside. This is the landowner's way of keeping away hunters, anglers, dog-walkers, (AmE) hikers/(BrE) ramblers, (orig. N. Amer. E) snowmobilers, others' livestock, etc. This also gives rise to the transitive verb: to post land--that is, to declare it off-limits by posting signs at specific intervals, as specified by state law. When I was a child, I was told that landowners were allowed to shoot trespassers if they'd posted their land. This, of course, was not true (though it could well have been true a longer time ago). These days, the penalties are fines or short jail stints and/or loss of hunting/fishing licen{c/s}es, depending on the state and whether the trespasser has hunted or has previous convictions. Click for miscellaneous examples from Kansas, Florida and North Dakota.

The trend in (at least northern) Europe is toward public access to private land. The UK recently implemented the Countryside and Right of Way Act (2000), informally known as the right to roam, which allows anyone the right to (BrE) ramble/(AmE) hike on uncultivated land (but not to ride horses, camp, etc.). (Hunting privileges are another matter, about which I have no clue.) For other European countries, see this Wikipedia article.

The Posted signs are pretty opaque in their meaning in the first place, but probably even more foreign to BrE speakers, since the related adjectival meaning of posted is used less in the UK:
2. Set up or fixed in a prominent place; displayed so as to provide information; advertised, made public. Now chiefly N. Amer. [OED: Mar 2007 draft revision]
As in:
1975 N.Y. Times 29 Oct. 28/1 There was ample time to peruse the posted menu of the day's cuisine minceur.
In BrE, one might be more likely to interpret posted menu as a menu that had been sent through the (BrE-preferred) post /(AmE-preferred) mail. (Mailed menu sounds a little odd to me in AmE--I'd probably say menu that had been sent in the mail.) When I worked in South Africa, in the days before widespread e-mail availability, I lived for the post/mail, even though it largely consisted of recitations by my mother of who-ate-what when they went out to dinner last. All of my letters were sent to my work address, so every afternoon, I could be heard to be wondering whether the mail was here yet. One of my colleagues could always be counted on to offer himself as "the male". That trained me into saying post fairly quickly.

Of course, the organi{s/z}ation that delivers the (BrE) post in the UK is the Royal Mail, demonstrating that mail isn't an AmE word, but that the senses and usage of the word varies across the two places. In BrE, it's more likely to be the mail when it is in transit in large bunches, and more likely to be the post when it is on its way from the post office to your door. Hence this entry in the OED (2004 draft revision):
2. a. A bag or packet of letters or dispatches for conveyance by post (more fully [Obs.] mail of letters). In later use chiefly: the postal matter (or a quantity of letters, packages, etc.) conveyed in this manner; all that is conveyed by post on one occasion. With definite article or without article. Also (chiefly in N. Amer.) in pl., and (chiefly S. Asian) with indefinite article.
The plural use mentioned here for AmE, the mails isn't used all that much, and sounds fairly outdated to me. (Something that the Pony Express might deal in, but not the modern-day USPS.) But the 'In later use chiefly' bit in the above definition is more true of BrE than AmE, since the following use is equally dominant in AmE:
c. orig. U.S. The letters, packages, etc., delivered to or intended for one address or individual.
The OED goes on to note that mail in AmE and AusE is also used to refer to the 'system of delivery and conveyance of letters, etc., by post', and notes:
The term mail (as distinguished from post) is currently dominant in North America and Australia, both for the system itself and the material carried. New Zealand retains post for the postal system, but mail otherwise. Britain favours post in both contexts. However, this pattern is not necessarily maintained in historically fixed collocations, such as Royal Mail, Post Office, Canada Post, Australia Post, parcel post, junk mail, etc. In the United Kingdom the word was formerly limited in ordinary use to the dispatch of letters abroad, as the Indian mail, etc., or as short for mail-train.
And thus AmE speakers tend to talk about mailmen--or the less gendered letter carriers--while BrE speakers tend to talk about postmen--but I note that the Royal Mail jobs website uses postperson where space is at a premium, and postman/postwoman elsewhere. Postal worker is used more generically to include people who work in the post office or sorting office, as well as deliverers, and of course some high-profile cases of postal workers (orig. BrE, I think) going mental and shooting people resulted in the AmE colloquialism to go postal.

Of course, postman is also known and used in AmE, as evidenced by The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Postman. This sounds a little old-fashioned to me in AmE, and I think Costner used postman in his title because it sounds a little more exotic than mailman. J. Robert Lennon's book title Mailman, on the other hand, carries with it a more quotidian feel. (Is it perverse to use such an exotic word to mean 'everyday'?)

I suppose we can't leave this subject without touching on e(lectronic)-mail. Much of the history of e(-)mail is situated in US Department of Defense (= BrE Defence) projects, which is probably why we call it e(-)mail, rather than e-post. This, of course, led to the AmE coinage of snail mail, but in BrE, of course, one can distinguish between the two types of communication by referring to e(-)mail versus post.

And with that, I'll post this blog post!


  1. A lot of people in computing contexts say "mails". Google for "send mails" and the first page consists of links to help asked for and offered.

  2. As an erstwhile techie, I can't resist rounding off your e-mail reference by pointing out that for many ISPs here in the UK the mail server to which you send your email is called as opposed to more common in the US - apart from those that are run by techies and call their server something like [smtp= simple mail transfer protocol, ironically a mail protocol defined by someone called Jonathan Postel]. Meanwhile, of course, you're likely to pick your email up from a server called something like [pop3= post office protocol 3]. Not only are we techies unimaginative in our naming conventions but we're hardly ever consistent.

  3. The actual point of the "Posted" signs is that New York state law (like many other U.S. state laws) has historically recognized the right to hunt, fish, and roam over other people's land, always doing no harm. The signs are an individual landowner's way of opting out of the law, and indicate not that the land is private property, but that the owner has specifically forbidden trespassing. The full form of the sign is "Posted: Hunting, Fishing, and Trespassing Prohibited By Law."

    For many years I left my land unposted, until I had a daughter and decided the risk to her of an idiot with a shotgun was too great. (Most of my deer-hunting neighbors are not idiots, but one never knows who may pop up during the season.) So I finally and reluctantly posted my land. Most of the signs have fallen down by now, but they served their purpose.

    Michael Wolf: The older use of mails was pluralia tantum, a mass noun in plural form, like ethics, statistics, or news. The uses you cite are ordinary plural count nouns, where mails means pieces of mail. (How does one say piece of mail in BrE? Posted article, perhaps?)

  4. I would argue off the top of my head that "going postal" is AmE because it tends to happen at the Post Office.

  5. Why does the USPS, unlike its British counterpart, deal with "mail" rather than "mails"?

    Because the folks there are easily overwhelmed.

  6. I notice that the lynguist's piece is referred to as a post, and that we are invited to post a comment. But what do you call someone who makes a post on a blog or in a bulletin board discussion. Poster? Post-er? Neither seems very satisfactory.

  7. bingley - I have always used poster.

  8. On blogs, I call people bloggers or commenters, rather than posters. But that may just be me.

  9. Lynne, your post should probably embolden "I have no clue" as AmE. BrE is "I haven't a clue", though one does say "I have no idea" in BrE as in AmE.

    I'm not sure "going mental" is the best rendering of "going postal". I would argue for "going ballistic": is that used in AmE? Though one can "go ballistic" in a paroxysm of ecstasy as well as rage: cf. "Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious"

    Costner used postman in his title because "The Postman" is adapted from a 1985 novel of the same name. That said, author David Brin is himself from southern California. (Or is that Southern California?)

  10. Mollymooly--I don't mark all of the 'have no' versus 'haven't a' in the blog because (a) it's a dialectal tendency, rather than a yes/no situation, and (b) because it would take over my life. But I discussed related phenomena back here--with discussion of the 'clue' idiom in the comments.

    I agree that 'going mental' does not equal 'going postal', but I wasn't really trying to claim that it was. Many BrE speakers will recogni{s/z}e the phrase going postal, so it doesn't require too much explanation. Going ballistic works as well in AmE, although going postal more specifically conjures [attempted] mass murder, whereas going ballistic is usually used to describe a lot of yelling.

    1. "Going berserk" seems more like it.

  11. As an upstate New Yorker, I'm quite used to seeing those POSTED signs. At one level, I resent them, as they remind me of the old Woody Guthrie lines from This Land Is Your Land:
    And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
    But on the other side it didn't say nothin'

    On the other hand, yahoo hunters, looking for deer, have shot cattle! So I do understand.

  12. I just find it funny that the UK uses the Royal Mail, yet calls it post.
    But the US has the US Postal Service, and calls it mail.

    Odd that it developed that way.

  13. Off topic slightly, when I was a child a person could be "posted", which was when a group of bullies picked you up and placec your legs either side of an upright object whilst their collaborators on tugged your ankles.

    It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.

  14. Another belated comment from me: I always thought Brin's work was called the Postman as a pun on "post" for "after" as in after civilisation.

  15. posted is also used in the phrasal expression "keep someone posted on/of/about/over something" to say "keep someone informed of/about somethinge." With the same meaning, can you say 'post up' as in "post me up (keep me posted) on anything that happens while I'm away?" Nore that I placed the punctuation in the AmE way, i.e. inside of the quotation marks.

  16. No, you can't 'post someone up'.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)