“Postman”

The current issue of the New Yorker has an interesting article about the novelist Dan Mallory, who under the pen name “A.J. Finn” wrote a best-selling thriller, The Woman in the Window. The first line of the article is “Dan Mallory, a book editor turned novelist, is tall, good-looking, and clever,” and the use of the “clever” (instead of the more common Americanism “smart”) is a clue that the New Yorker writer, Ian Parker, is English.

But that is neither here nor there. What’s interesting for the purpose of this blog is a paragraph where Parker describes some affectations of Mallory, who is American-born but partly educated at Oxford:

Whereas in London Mallory had sometimes seemed like a British satire of American bluster, in New York he came off as British. He spoke with an English accent and said “brilliant,” “bloody,” and “Where’s the loo?”—as one colleague put it, he was “a grown man walking around with a fake accent that everyone knows is fake.” The habit lasted for years, and one can find a postman, not a mailman, in “The Woman in the Window.”

Hmm, the British use “post” as both noun and verb while Americans say “mail,” but I hadn’t thought of “postman” as a particularly British term. In fact, the first thing that comes to mine is James M. Cain’s quintessentially American 1934 noir novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. And, as Dan Geringer reminds me, the Marvelletes’ 1961 Motown hit was “Please Mr. Postman.”

Google Ngram Viewer, which charts words’ frequency in the Google Books database, suggests while “postman” is indeed (much) more popular than “mailman” in Britain, “postman” is also more popular than “mailman” in America (at least through 2000, the last year for which the application has reliable data).

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The New York Times archives tell a similar story. Since 1950, the paper has used “postman” 1,966 times, and “mailman” 2.203 times. (There’s a bit more of a gap than those figures suggest, since “Postman” at least occasionally appears as a surname.)

However, Brigham Young University’s 1.9 billion-word Corpus of Global Web-Based English, which offers a snapshot of the use of the language in 2013-2014, suggests that “postman” has recently gotten less common in the U.S. Here’s its chart showing relative use of the word in the U.S., Canada, and Britain.

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So I think we can conclude: in addition to his other sins, Dan Mallory is guilty of pretentiousness.

20 responses to ““Postman”

  1. I see that Canadians seem to use postman at the same rate as Americans but do people in the States use the short and non-gendered form “postie” to describe their letter carrier – as we do in Canada? I say “postie” or “letter carrier” much more often than I say “postman” or “mailman”. Both of those words seem very old fashioned to me.

  2. Strangely, the service which employs postmen (and women) in the UK is the Royal Mail; the service that employs mailmen (and women) in the US is the US Postal service.

  3. I want to respond coherently to this but my thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box, so the hell with it.

  4. There was the 1985 novel by David Brin, filmed in 1997 by Kevin Costner, called The Postman.

    • There was also a 1994 film, based on a novel by Antonio Skármeta, that was released in the US as “Il Postino: The Postman” and also simply as “The Postman”.

      I remember joking about a possible sequel called “Il Crostino: The Toastman”. Few people get my jokes sometimes . . .

      • And Harry Enfield did a parody called Il Postino Pat, conflating it with the children’s animation series Post Pat:

  5. Peter le Feuvre

    ‘clever’ in BrE is almost always used in a positive way whereas in BrE ‘smart’ often implies ‘sly’ (smart Alec)
    As for the postal conundrum:
    In Britain the Royal Mail delivers the post
    In the US the Post Office delivers the mail

  6. I was just wondering the other day whether young people (Millennials and Gen-Z types) are familiar with the expression “to go postal”. That was quite common in the 80s – but I suspect the kids today might not know it.

    • Terry Pratchett did a Discworld novel called Going Postal, which was later filmed as miniseries for British television (an early appearance by Claire Foy). It’s all about a conman employed by The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork to reform the postal service.

  7. Shouldn’t we say “Postperson” now?

  8. Never thought of, “Postman” as being particularly associated with either left- or right-pondia.

    “I gave a letter to the postman, He put it his sack”
    Otis & Winfield, 1962.
    Did rather well for the chap who sang it.

  9. My sense as a young American (27) is that I wouldn’t bat an eye if someone said or wrote postman, but I could never get myself to say it. I usually say mail-lady since it’s a woman who delivers the mail in my neighborhood, but if I don’t know then I say mailman.

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