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Our History: E-mail and V-mail: Words of the century

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As we say farewell to one century and welcome the new, many media discussions have centered on aspects of the past centuries that were unique and/or outstanding.

The media has concentrated on what person deserved the distinction as the most influential or what invention, scientific discovery or technological development most affected society. If nothing else, it prompted us to look back and view the positive aspects of our own past history. Some, as always, chose to highlight the evils.

In the spirit of valediction, I thought it might be interesting to consider some words from past centuries and their origins. How quickly some words become lost or forgotten by upcoming generations. I remember, for example, how amazed I was in the early 1970s when my students did not know the meaning of the word, "attic." It dawned on me in time that, of course, most of them lived in apartments or public housing. The same could be said of their knowledge of the word "cellar," for much the same reason.

The word attic had its origins in the ancient Greek city state of Athens, which included the Attic peninsula, called Attica. A typical Athenian style of architecture featured a smaller decorative structure whose columns were pilasters rather than pillars, which surmounted a larger facade supported by large columns. This attic style was adopted by the French as "attique" and later Anglicized by the English. The word attic was extended to mean a top story under the roof of a building. Thus, the word evolved from an elegant architectural style to an inelegant storage space, over the centuries.

Today everyone is familiar with the word E-Mail, but how many know or remember V-mail? During World War II, it was very important for combat personnel and their families to keep in touch so the U.S. military devised a method to achieve this using a simple photographic process and a new word was born. It was named V-mail, for victory.

The letter-writer would compose a message on a one-sided form and this was photographed onto 16 millimeter black and white camera film and then sent to a processing center on a reel that also held several other messages.

These were printed on black and white photographic paper and folded and slipped into an envelope. The letters in this form were delivered to all theaters of the war. Small in size, V-mail was devised to allow for the large exchange of messages generated during the war.

The mail system had to vie for overseas cargo space with so many other needs including, food, fuel, and supplies. More than 1.5 billion V-mails were processed. To this day I have preserved as historic mementoes, V-mail my husband received from childhood buddies who were corresponding with him from overseas.

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