United States Postal Service (USPS) letter carrier Lakesha Dortch-Hardy smiles as she sorts mail at the Lincoln Park carriers annex in Chicago. REUTERS/John Gress

It's an outdated way to refer to letter carriers, of whom more than a third are women.

The U.S. Postal Service is going through some long-awaited changes. A new fleet of trucks, for example, is set to replace those nearly 30-year-old boxy whites. There is, thankfully, a new policy on 911 calls, where postal workers no longer have to notify the postal police (there is such a thing) before dialing 911 in an emergency. Execs are even dreaming up ways to stay relevant in the digital age.

But there's another change for which the USPS is long overdue, though the service might not be aware that it's needed. Ask yourself: How do you refer to the people who deliver mail to your place of residence? Chances are, you probably say "postman" or "mailman." I do.

The Washington Post,
May 1, 1964. (ProQuest)

This is despite the fact that the USPS selected its first female Postmaster General last November. And despite the fact that women have served as "letter carriers" (the proper term, according to USPS representatives) since at least 1845. And despite the fact that more than 38 percent of carriers today are women.

"Letter carrier" often appears in newspapers since it follows AP style (quoth the 2013 edition: "letter carrier is the preferred term because many women hold this job"). But very few people say "letter carrier" or "mail carrier" in normal speech. I could give you a bunch of anecdotal proof, but here, by way of Brigham Young University English professor Delys M. Snyder, is the Corpus of Contemporary American Speech, which analyzes the frequency of certain words by different categories (including speech) across more than 450 million words. Compare the frequency, per million words, of these terms, from 1990 to 2012:

  • Postm*n (where it could be "postmen" or "postman") = 6.23
  • Mailm*n = 1.41
  • Mail carrier = 0.26
  • Letter carrier = 0.17

This is not good. Research shows that occupation titles with a gendered noun or suffix attached to them shape cultural expectations about what kinds of people perform that job. “When children hear a job title that has a gender mark on it, like an e-s-s ending or an m-a-n ending, and you ask them to draw pictures or talk about who’s doing that job, they will pick the one that matches the gender of the word,” Snyder recently explained. “If we’re going to be fair in opening up the world of work to men and women, and make it possible for everybody, maybe our job titles should reflect that.”

AP Wirephoto, Los Angeles Times,
Jul 26, 1962. (ProQuest)

Now why, in a world where the gender-neutral terms "firefighter" and "police officer" have nearly replaced "fireman" and "policeman"—despite the fact that they reflect members of far more male-dominated occupations—do so many Americans still say "mailman" rather than "letter carrier"?

There's no one thing you can pin it to, says Snyder. It could be the number of syllables, or length of time required to say the terms. It could also be that gender-neutral terms are more important to fight for in occupations where there's been greater resistance to diversity; the USPS has a much longer history of including women than American police and fire departments do.

That might be why, when I asked USPS representatives and academics who study the postal service why the gendered term is still so entrenched, they all insisted that it wasn't.

"I don’t refer to our carriers as mailmen—nor does anyone here," Sue Brennan, USPS senior public relations representative, told me by email. "The only time I hear that term is in old TV shows."

Philip F. Rubio, a historian at North Carolina A&T State University who's written a book about the USPS, was a letter carrier for 20 years. "I was impressed at how in the last decade of my career, the '90s, so many men adapted to "letter carrier" because it became normative," he told me by email. "It was stitched on our uniforms. It was our legal occupational title."

A U.S. Post Office driver gestures while passing a protest by fellow postal employees last year in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Unfortunately, it was not the title embraced by much of the letter-receiving public. And that matters: Even if there are plenty of women who make up the postal service, calling letter carriers "mailmen" erases their presence. It's harmful to our common perceptions of who delivers mail.

Look, USPS, I get that you're still in fiscal hot water, and that you've got other things to think about (see above). But the fact that Americans are still saying "postman" isn't exactly in your best interest if you're trying to belong in the 21st century.  

What can be done about this? Perhaps we need a more casual alternative to "letter carrier"? May I suggest "mail mensch"?

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