or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Mail Call

Whenever I see a suspect assertion about some aspect of grammar, usage, or spelling, my immediate, combative instinct is to think, "Oh, yeah? We'll just see about that!" Sometimes I am put in my place, with no-one the wiser--I can't always be right--but usually my suspicions are borne out.

I was poking around the Internet looking for chain-mail patterns, for no particular reason other than that it suddenly occurred to me that I would like to know, and I stumbled across this page which contains the following paragraph from a posting by someone named Alejandra:

Please, just "mail." Not "Chainmail". Mail means chain. Chainmail means "chainchain." Plate mail is a D&D-inspired silliness.

Alejandra? Everything in that paragraph is wrong. Just a little heads-up there.

"Mail" doesn't mean "chain" and never did. It does mean "armour"; it's derived from the French word "maile" (with the same meaning), and this came to French from the Latin "macula", which had (at least) two meanings in that language: a blemish or spot, and the mesh of a net--that is to say, the spots that aren't holes. ("Macula" exists in English with that first definition, and it may look familiar from the word "immaculate", which is to say "spotless".) "Mail" came to mean all sorts of related things; a fish's scales, armour, or a bird's plumage, depending on the writer's flight of fancy, but eventually we settled on "armour".

And even if "chain-mail" were redundant, so what? The English language has plenty of redundancies ("tuna fish"!), and they don't impoverish or worsen the language in any way. But "chain-mail" is not one of those redundancies: it's entirely correct, because it distinguishes a kind of armour from other kinds of armour, such as, yes, plate-mail (that is, metal plates held together with leather straps or metal rings), and ring-mail (in which metal rings aren't interlinked into chains but attached to a garment to provide lightweight protection).

"Mail", it is true, once meant armour made of interlinked rings, but its meaning eventually was synechdochized to mean any kind of armour at all. The distaste for this meaning seems to be a fancy of the modern let's-pretend-we're-knights-and-ladies types. "Chain-mail" has been around for some three hundred years; it's not a neologism, and there's no shame in using it.


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