U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Inarticulate by Choice: The Decline of Letter Writing and the Future of the Intellectual Past, Part One

Should someone interested in intellectual history be worried about the near demise of letter writing in our lifetimes? In the next couple of posts, I’ll offer some of my thoughts on this, for whatever they’re worth. Perhaps you will say my affirmative answer is all too predictable, but perhaps my reasons will be of interest to some readers, if only for their humor value or quaintness. Even as I write this I realize how dated my reflections must already sound to some. But to those I say, did you ever think the record player, albums, bell bottoms, and the Beach Boys would have another run? Yes, I am logging one person’s protest. But please note that I am not arguing a Luddite either/or position, as cathartic as that might be, but rather making a case for a marriage of ideals, past and present, or at least peaceful coexistence. That would seem preferable to ditching one altogether, on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.

I grew up in a household in which letter writing was at least as common as watching a show on tv; no, even more so. Honestly. I regularly wrote to and received letters from my grandparents, my uncle, and friends out of town even for a few weeks in the summer. Summertime, in fact, was always a great time for letters. Reading or writing them was one of our favorite summer activities, along with swimming, riding horses, reading for fun, and just lying in the long grass watching the clouds go by. (And I didn’t even walk to school and back for ten miles in a snowstorm. Ever.) Later additional regular correspondents included my parents, romantic interests, teachers, friends of my family, and others. I still have many of the letters I received. The delivery of the mail each day was always a treat, as you never knew when you might receive a letter or postcard addressed to you personally.

The advent of email thus at first filled me, as it did many others who knew the deep satisfactions of this pursuit, with trepidation. What would a cold, impersonal, and computerized way of communicating do to this beloved part of life, the wellspring of so much joy and meaning?

I still remember experiencing an aversion (gag?) reflex when I first saw an actual email address. An unsightly and awkward non-word, here it was, in all lower-case letters, like the dreamer who shows up on the first day of class without his or her pants. But not a dream. Worse off than being caught in a plain old birthday suit, this figure was deliberately accessorized with the bizarre and, to borrow Lewis Mumford’s term, paleo-technic @ mark, and the infantile “dot…dot” (we had learned to call it a period since about age three, after all). It seemed like something a robot would designate an address, hardly comparable with words written out long-hand or typed on an envelope calling up a particular, unique person and a particular, unique place in the world. The integrity and dignity of those names were protected by the buffer and frame of standard spacing and punctuation. We had never begrudged those little spaces the miniscule space they were taking up. We never thought of merging all of the letters and symbols together like some kind of sudden pile-up accident on the highway.

As time went by and it became clear that email was displacing letter-writing as we knew it, I wondered whether I would, could, or should make my peace with this new mode of communicating. I resisted using email as long as possible, until it made such inroads at the workplace as to make it nearly mandatory. When I found that fruitful exchanges with students often occurred on email because they seemed so comfortable with the medium, I became more reconciled to the (no longer new) technology. A few awkward initial work emails morphed into an ever-expanding list of messages to click on and “open” (a faded memory of what it used to mean to open a piece of mail). (Apparently in Poland, anyway, there was initially some controversy over whether “click” was even the proper word, since a mouse does not click so much as squeak). While I suppose I experienced an occasional frisson of excitement on rare occasions when I saw that particular person had written me, the Christmas-morning level of anticipation attending the daily mail was not an intrinsic part of email. Needless to say, when someone attached the “s” word to the word “mail” in a cruel act of name-calling directed at what I had come to treasure as a complete, life-giving practice–it was hardly reducible to just another mode of transporting a piece of freight, with words as the un-precious cargo to be lugged around any old way–I was not amused.

Turning momentarily to the @, the terms used to refer to this “at” sign or “commercial at,” as it is known in English, vary greatly from country to country. The LINGUIST LIST website’s list gives an entertaining assortment of them here, collected from all over the world. For a lovely commentary, see also this piece from the e-zine of Michael Quinion, British author of Why is Q Always Followed by U? (answers to language questions), Gallimaufry (about words that are vanishing from English), and the UK bestseller Port Out, Starboard Home–in the USA Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds–, debunking legends about word origins.

Most commonly, @ is rendered with animal metaphors, such as monkey tail, cat or dog or pig tail, or elephant trunk. Some of my favorites are strudel, little puppy, little kitten, and meow. Can you imagine the possibilities for a fuzzier, furrier future and humbler, humanized technology if we were to start spelling our email addresses with a “meow”? The commercial at instead has connotations of *insert number* at the price of *insert price*. How cold, impersonal, and computerized can you get?


But wait! What does Italy call the @ you might ask, and rightly so. It calls it a “chiocciola,” the Italian word for snail, especially the shell. A beautiful image. Likewise in Hebrew, Korean, and Esperanto. And French? Mai oui, you are correct. Un escargot! So, who is looking like the real snail now? Or is it already implied; does everyone but me already know e-mail is short for “escargot” mail?

In the last couple of years, I developed a close friendship with a woman twenty years my senior. I had known her for decades but had previously socialized with her only when our two families had gotten together. Discovering one another as true friends, which means also learning the other is capable of doing what it takes to sustain a friendship, has been a joy.

In anticipation of my going out of the country for the Spring 2012 semester, we wondered together over lunch what would be the best way to keep in touch. We both liked the idea of experimenting with exchanging old-fashioned letters. We already had our own preferred and customary forms of communicating–a combination of long, leisurely lunches about every other week, and longish, personalized emails in between only to make arrangements to see one another or to report something of unusual interest like an interesting article, stunning weather, or a wildlife sighting. We had no idea whether we would take to letter writing. We agreed on the experiment only with mutual assurances that if ever it was inconvenient, we should instead fall back on the easier path of enhancing our email communication for the duration of my stay abroad. Here, I’ll just report that our experiment was a great success.

But for now I hope you’ll join me in considering what alternative to the s-word could help reflect the honorable tradition of exchanging regular mail. Quinion writes, re the @ symbol: “the most-used Hebrew term is strudel, from the famous Viennese rolled-up apple sweet. Another common Swedish name is kanelbulle, ‘cinnamon bun’, which is rolled up in a similar way.” If the cold and distant commercial at, with its echoes of the cash register, is preferred for one of the key building blocks of email, clearly the territory of the warm and charming has been ceded to those who might wish to restore the practice of exchanging old-fashioned letters to its central place in life. Certainly another name for the mail that captures the essence of what is so sublime about a real letter will come to someone’s mind. Does anyone have any ideas? Maybe rhyming with email could be just The Mail, with the accent on the “The,” pronounced thee. Is this coincidentally apt? Perhaps Thee Mail is just the corrective we need to to e- (me-?) mail.

In the next post I hope to convey some of the differences between letter-writing, as I have just recently re-experienced it, and the use of emails. In doing so I merely add my brief to that of others who have lamented the decline of this delicious pursuit. You might dismiss this, I know, as nothing but nostalgia, another all-purpose epithet designed for just such occasions. But the line between nostalgia and retro isn’t always so clear, is it?

To be continued…

One Thought on this Post

  1. There’s much in the world of email or twitter etc that I can’t bring myself to do. The use of acronyms or abbreviations (I guess that’s what they are)signifying emotional responses of amusement or derision are often confusing to me when the words are inadequate for describing the intent of the emotional response. I suppose it comes from the haste with which we send an email versus the calm reflection of a letter. In my case one has to be patient to put up with the poor handwriting.

    Nevertheless, for this 60 year old I very much appreciate the ease in writing, editing and sending an email versus the handwritten letter (mine always had a very messy quality). I’m sure those with greater clarity of mind and penmanship can better appreciate the conveyance.

    I prefer the identification “post”, no good reason for it just do.

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