Have you noticed that these days the term ‘snail mail’ is synonymous with the more traditional postal system & appears to be a snide dig at the slowness, as represented by the snail, of the conventional postal system as opposed to the virtually instantaneous dispatch & delivery of electronic mail? According to a quick scan of the web the term itself seems to have entered the vernacular in the early 1980’s. I notice that while the word does not appear in my hard copy The Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary (1982), it does surface online in the Collins English Dictionary * and can be either a noun or a verb.
As an avid gardener I would question how anyone who has seen the work of snails in amongst nearly planted seedlings after a good down-pour, could conceivably say they were slow.
However, in the spirit of fairness I can attest to the difference in pace of the conventional postal system versus its electronic counterpart as shown by two recent occurrences. One of my daughters’ school friends thought it would be a splendid idea to invite two of her friends over for a play & would do this via an invitation sent through the mail. Her mother dutifully checked with me on our correct postal address & drove the eventful 40 minutes to the post office to buy the stamps & send the letters. She had allowed that a full week would be ample time for the invitations to travel the approximate 16 kilometers from the main city post office to our compound. Four weeks later the invitation arrived, thanks to prior warning & Mr. A.G. Bell’s invention a disaster was averted. In the same week we received our Christmas card from friends in Ireland, now without getting into Irish jokes it did seem a little surprising to receive a Christmas card in July, an email to said friend & response less than four hours later (not forgetting several time zones separate us) we clarified the card had been sent over seven months ago & time being of the essence agreed we were happy to display it for this coming Christmas as it had been a tad tardy for the year in which it was intended.
Whilst these latest experiences may lead one to acquiescent that perhaps the traditional system is sluggish, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this is bad, you just need to plan well ahead. Nor does is really address why the snail was selected to represent slowness when I thought a sloth or seahorse were slower. Point conceded though that a seahorse is a water creature, so not a good example as mail is generally paper & would get awfully wet & hard to read.
* Collins English Dictionary 10thed.2009 (retrieved 13.8.2013)