Tag Archives: letters


British Postal Codes

I don’t know if you pump your own gas these days or not. I suspect you do, like most of us these days, unless we visit to New Jersey where it’s against the law to do so. This fact of modern life was satirized in a scene from one of my favorite movies, Back to the Future, where Marty McFly is astonished to see four attendants at a filling station launch themselves at a car to check the air in the tires, clean the windshield, pop the hood to look at the oil and coolant levels, and take the driver’s order for gas. Now, those were the days!

Of course, if we’re paying cash, we have trudge over to the attendant—the horror of it all!—and schelp back to the car where we can then fill the tank ourselves. If we’re using a credit or debit card, our lives are somewhat easier. Indeed, if we used plastic to pay for gas, we rolled up to the pumps, got out, swiped our card through the reader, waited for the screen to respond, chose a grade of gas to our liking, and started pumping. Those days are gone, apparently, because the little magic screen now asks us to enter our zip code, a security measure in case we have stolen our own credit card and are trying to use it a half mile from where we live. I understand the need for this little addition, since having a credit number used and abused by someone else does not make for a good day in the life of the card holder, but I also have to confess it took me back a bit when I first had to enter the number with my little index finger. The screen also told me that if my postal code included letters, I had to see the attendant. Huh? I thought. There ain’t no letters in a zip code. What’s with that?

As it turns out, there are letters in postal codes of many countries around the world. Say you want to send a nice letter to Oxford Press in Oxford, England. You write your nice letter, put it in an envelope, and after putting on proper postage, address it to:

Oxford University Press
Great Clarendon Street

My little experience pumping gas showed me, once again, there is always more to learn. And I’m glad. Think how insufferably dull life would be if we knew all there was to know by the ago of, say, 30. As it is, the older I get, the less I think I know. And that’s not a bad way to be.Please note that the “postal code” includes letters and numbers, so they got it about 1/3 right. Not bad for a former mother country. They’re not alone, however, in using letters: about 250 other countries do as well, including, in some cases, the U.S. So, we’re in a minority by using only numbers. Who knew this? Not me!

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Round Robin

Round Robin

Our friend Mark Cooke, trumpet player extraordinaire and financial advisor par excellence, asked me the other day if I had ever heard of a round robin letter, and if so, where the term came from. I recalled hearing the term but didn’t know much about it, and certainly didn’t know the history of the phrase. I was familiar with the round robin tournament, in which every player or teams plays every other player or team until something else happens. There’s also a single-elimination tournament (you lose, you go home) and the double elimination tournament (you lose twice, you go home). A church softball team I was on several years ago was involved in a double elimination tournament. We were not competitive or very good, but we managed to win the first game. We hope we would lose the next two games quickly because the day was hot and we were tired. We did. I know, we were a terrible example for the youth of America. But we lived to play another year.

Mark described his family’s experience with the round robin letter as starting about the time of the Korean War. One family member would write a letter about that branch of the family, kind of like the Christmas letters everyone loves to hate. (We do one at Christmas every year but limit ourselves to about a page each. Our daughters and Becky are excellent writers so maybe it’s not so bad. As for me, you can judge for yourself every week how that works out.) That family member sends the letter to another one, who adds a letter and sends it on to the next member of the family in the chain. When the letters get back to the original writer, he or she removes the original letter and puts in an update. And so the robin has gone ‘round and ‘round in Mark’s family for over fifty years. I found some other articles about round robins that indicated they were popular in World War II as a means of keeps far-flung families in touch with each other. I was describing this phenomenon to a young person who said (facetiously, I hope), “Why didn’t they just use Facebook?” I suspect social media would have put an end to round robins even if old age and death of the writers hadn’t. We all know what has happened to letter writing recently, and it’s a shame. The round robin is a charming reminder of an earlier era when mail was delivered twice or three times a day in some cities.

As for the name, apparently it dates from seventh century French usage. It was called ruban rond (round ribbon) and described the practice of signatories to petitions against authority (usually government officials petitioning the Crown) appending their names on a document in a non-hierarchical circle or ribbon pattern (and so disguising the order in which they have signed) in order that none could be identified as a ring leader.

The practice was adopted by sailors petitioning officers in the Royal Navy (first recorded 1731)

The term round-robin is recorded in English much earlier, although not with the above meaning. It first appears in 1546 meaning someone who is round and called Robin (oddly enough), and appears later applied to troublemakers: “These Wat Tylers and Round-Robins being driven or persuaded out of Whitehall abc” (1671). Wat Tyler was, of course, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381 and he led 50,000 peasants to London to demand an end to an oppressive poll tax. They were met by a large force of mounted knights and it was no contest between armored knights and largely unarmed peasants. Wat himself was killed. Apparently Round Robin was another dissenter about whom the details have been lost to history. It would be easier to take an insurrectionist named Wat Tyler seriously than one named Round Robin. Maybe Robin took his name from the practice of signing petitions in a circle.

In British usage, “round robin” applies specifically to Christmas letters. They seem to be the subject of more vehement vituperation than is usually accorded their American cousins. It’s my impression that the British roundly abhor anything that even mildly hints at bragging. Americans seem to regard sharing the family’s accomplishments as news that everyone is anxious to know.

So, maybe you, Faithful Readers, would like to bring back the custom of the round robin. They’re not nearly as amusing as passing a fruitcake around for decades, but they are much more informative.


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