I came across “V-mail” in a short story in today’s lesson and was at a loss about its meaning. I inquired of the students its possible meanings, and my English monitor told me that it was a mailing system employed by the American army during World War II. No other students came up with an explanation. According to my monitor, V-mail worked this way. During the war, regular mail would have taken too much space and would have been unsafe. So, the American army first photographed the mail onto films and then sent the films to and from the homeland. Upon reaching the addressee, the photographed mail was printed onto paper for easier reading. I thought this explanation was convincing.


The term occurs in such a paragraph in the story we read.


“I was born in January 1945. On February 15 my father wrote me a letter of welcome. The V-mail letter is taped into my baby book.”


In class, I had several ideas about the letter “V”. What does it stand for? I know words like voice mail and video mail on the net, but during the last world war, there couldn’t have been such technological conveniences. So what is it?


I googled the term, and to my amazement, I found the following elucidating explanation of the word. Here it is.


“V-MAIL (http://www.worldwidewords.org/turnsofphrase/tp-vma1.htm)


This term first appeared more than 50 years ago for a method of microfilming US forces mail to and from home to cut down shipping costs (the V stood then for “victory”). It’s also been used much more recently, again mainly in the USA, as an abbreviation for voice mail. Its most recent incarnation is as a short form of video mail, the video equivalent of e-mail. Though it has been around in experimental conditions for some time, the term itself seems to be no more than a couple of years old. V-mail is only very slowly becoming a practical proposition, because until recently the size of video clips made it impracticable to use them in Internet messages and there was no simple way to record and edit them. But now software is becoming available that permits video clips to be created and viewed and then compressed to ease transmission. Industry pundits are predicting that within a few years it will be as common to see e-mail messages with video attached as it is now to get them with sounds or still pictures. But even with compression, a one-minute video clip takes up about a megabyte, and information technologists worry that the introduction of v-mail will be yet another strain on the data-carrying capacity of the Internet. We shall also have to decide how to spell it: the term is currently going through the same stages as e-mail, with and without an initial capital V or a hyphen.


Sending short video messages by e-mail—dubbed v-mail—is to become a lot easier, thanks to a $99 system from Philips of the Netherlands.

[New Scientist, Nov. 1998]


A V-Mail takes megabytes to convey a message that could travel as a kilobyte of text.

[Personal Computer World, Mar. 1999]


World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–2005.”


The illustration shows that in my story, which is set in World War II, V-mail stands for Victory Mail. But currently this word can mean voice mail or video mail.


Language is always changing, Old words are dying, old words are taking on new meanings, new words are being coined, and new words are replacing old ones.


One day V-mail could mean “vicious mail”. Who can tell?


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