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shameless pleading


Look on the bright side.  Most groundhogs never get to read the New Yorker.

Dear Word Detective:  In rural Missouri, teens often ride around and knock over the mailboxes setting on posts along the road. While mending the post one day, it made me think if the “post,” the piece of wood that is now in splinters, and the “post,” as in the letters and bills scattered on the ground, were related to more than just the scene of the crime.  Also, the prefix “post-” (as in “postmortem”), is it also part and parcel of this root?.– Margherita.

They still do that where you are?  The first few years we lived in rural Ohio, we lost three or four boxes to marauding adolescents, but lately they seem to be too busy text-messaging each other at 65 mph to take time to bash our mailbox.  Thank heavens we can still count on the myopic nitwit from the township road crew to smash our post to smithereens with his tractor at least once every summer when he mows the berm.

There is no direct connection between the wooden “post” on which your mailbox sits (or sat) and “post” in the sense of “mail” (including such terms as “post office” and “postal workers”).   The prefix “post,” meaning “after” (as in “postwar,” “postgraduate,” etc.), is unrelated to either of them.

“Post” meaning “upright column or pillar” (usually of wood) is the oldest of the three, derived from the Latin “postis,” meaning “doorpost,” which was probably formed from the combination of “por,” meaning “forward,” and a form of “stare,” meaning “to stand.”  Interestingly, this “post” is also the source of the verb “to post,” originally meaning to fasten a notice to a post (or, today, a bulletin board or the like), as well as “poster” in the sense of a large notice or graphic placard.

The “post” in “post office” and similar terms, however, comes from the organization of early mail systems in Medieval Europe.  To carry mail long distances, riders were placed at set intervals along major roads (later known, logically, as “post roads”), and the mail was passed from one rider to the next in a relay system similar to the Pony Express in the Old West.  These early mail riders were “posted” at their stations, “post” in this sense coming from the Latin verb “ponere,” meaning “to place.”  (The same verb “ponere” also gave us our modern English word “position.”)  Although there may have been wooden “posts” (poles) at these “posts” (positions)  for riders to hitch their horses, the two kinds of “posts” are not related.

I hate to add to this “post-post” tango, but there is another verb “to post,” based on this “position” kind of “post,” meaning “to send by mail.”  This “to post” is more common in the UK than in the US, where we generally use the verb “to mail.”

The prefix “post” meaning “after” is from yet another source, the Latin adverb (and preposition) “post” meaning “behind” or “after.”  There’s no connection between this “post” and either the “mail” or “wooden column” kinds of post.  But it’s interesting that the verb “to postpone” brings together “post” in this “after” sense with our pal “ponere” meaning “to place” (which gave us the “post” in “post office”).  “Postpone,” of course, means to delay something (an appointment, a deadline, etc.) after its original date.

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