Some novel uses for snails
by Dan E. Bloom
Please read this commentary at a snail's pace or, as some might say,
at a snail's gallop. Because this story is about snails in our
language and how terms
like snailmail and snailpapers (for print newspapers) came to be
coined. If something happens at a snail's pace, of course, it means
that the action happens at a snail's pace. When watching a movie, if
the plot seems to be unfolding at a snail's pace, it might mean seem
to the viewer in the theater as if all the characters in the film were
What about snail bait? That's a good one. That's a humorous way of
talking about a slow-moving, lazy, or sluggish person.
Not jail bait, that's something different.
You've heard of a web cam and overhead cam, but what's a snail cam?
Get ready for this one: It's a came for mechanical engineers that
features a cam with spiral cross-section used for progressive lifting
of a lever as the cam revolves.
Snail fever? You do not want to catch snail fever, and here's why.
Schistosomiasis is a tropical disease caused by infestation with
schistosomes, widespread in rural areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin
America through use of contaminated water. Why you don't to catch
snail fever, even at a snail's pace: It's characterized by infection
and gradual destruction of the tissues of the kidneys, liver, and
other organs. And you might die.l Slowly. At a snail's pace. Not a
Now we all know that snail mail (two words) or snailmail (one word) is
a derogatory "retronym" — named after the snail with its proverbially
slow speed — coined in 1982 to refer to letters and missives carried
by conventional postal delivery services. The phrase refers to the
lag-time between dispatch of a letter and its receipt, versus the
virtually instantaneous dispatch and delivery of its electronic
equivalent, e-mail. But snailmail, for all its ornery derogatoriness
can also be a term of endearment for sending and receiving mail in the
old-fashioned way, using such arcane instruments as paper, envelopes
that can sealed up with glue (or saliva!), handwriting tools, stamps,
postmarks, things like that. Some people still love that stuff. I do!
Did you know that snail mail is also sometimes used as a term in
reference to penpals? Get this: "Snail mail penpals are those penpals
that communicate with one another through the postal system, rather
than on the internet which is becoming the standard form of
communication for penpals." That's what I learned today while I was
typing this article at a snail's pace in my usual hunt-and-peck
There are lots of stories, some true, some not, some apochraphyl, some
apocalyptic, about how snailmail got its name. Says one source (and I
am just copying and pasting here): "This term was used at least as
early as 1981 in the animated feature 'Strawberry Shortcake: Big Apple
City' to describe mail being delivered by a snail. Strawberry receives
her letter three weeks late because, as the snail character admits,
'Snail mail, she is slow'."
And now you know....the rest of the snailmail story.
But there's more: you might be reading this article in your own daily
snailpaper. Yes, this newspaper you are holding in your hands right
now, scanning the headlines and checking out
the photographs, turning the pages and going back and forth as your
whims dictate, this is a snailpaper! Why do I call it that? Well,
first of all, let me explain that the word as I use it here is not a
derogatory retronym but rather a term of endearment. Because I love my
daily snailpaper and I hope and pray that snailpapers will never
disappear from the face of the Earth. Maybe they will disappear, but
if they are fated to do so, I hope they disappear at a snail's pace so
that I can spend the rest of my life, at least, reading my daily
snailpaper. If in the future, after I'm gone, and my entire generation
passes to the Great Beyond (where the afterlife will really proceed at
a snail's pace, I am sure!), snailpapers are completely replaced by
this thing called the Internet and online news platforms, well, at
least, I knew what the smell of ink was like, the sound of
freshly-turned pages, and the joy of clipping stories out of the paper
and folding them up and putting them in my shirt pocket for later
reference, and sitting a sunny park bench reading the bright newsprint
thingamajig with joy and anticipation as I turned each page -- at a
So long live the daily snailpaper, and long may it prosper still in
our Digital Pixel Culture where "don't blink or you'll miss it" has
become the defining moment of human awareness. Sigh.
Okay, I'm an old fuddieduddy (OFD), way past my prime and edging into
my 60s in a world where you can't trust anyone over 30 (remember that
one!), but I a happy OFD and there's nothing like firing up my outdoor
BBQ grill with some odd remnants of my daily snailpaper as fuel to get
the coals going. Fuel for thought? Food for thought.
Dan E. Bloom (the middle initial stands for "electronic") is a 1971
graduate of Tufts University in Boston where he majored in