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New Possible
Although there were no other signs of that (like the "Startup disk full" alert.)

Because this involved GMail, my thoughts* were the problem was with Safari. It wasn't until after we went through clearing cookies + cache that I realized she had no clue how to get to GMail that way and that the problem was elsewhere. But that did clear up a few 100 MB and Mail still balked.

I'll try to find out where the downloads go, but following the adventures to clear the cache, I doubt that is anywhere but Safari's default location.

* and initially confirmed by friend :-/
New Huh, that's a weird one then.
Welcome to Rivendell, Mr. Anderson.
New Maybe it's related to this?
Mac OS X Hints:

Speed up your Mac by removing files from the Desktop Desktop

Mar 13, '12 07:30:00AM • Contributed by: Anonymous

A family member owns a Mac, and he was complaining it was getting slow - especially the Desktop. He had a lot of files on the Desktop, but none of them were visible on the Desktop itself, but only in a Finder window displaying the contents of the Desktop. The Desktop only showed two icons: the main hard disk, and a Time Machine hard disk. The Desktop itself was very slow, and often displayed a beachball.

However, when I looked in the Desktop folder, there were more than 2,700 image files. When I removed the image files from the Desktop folder, everything went back to normal.

So, don't over-clutter your Desktop, as it might slow down your Mac and even hide files.

[kirkmc adds: This isn't new, and there have been a couple of hints about this in the past; the only ones I can find were in 2005 and again in 2008. I think it's worth pointing it out again, though, to users who aren't aware of the issue. If you have a lot of files on the Desktop, it will slow down your Mac; if you have Show Icon Preview checked in the View Options, it will slow it down even more. Personally, I don't put any files on the Desktop for this reason.]

Just a thought.

New probably has to do with file handles in a directory maxing out
back when I did mac I did have a similar issue as I dumped everything to the desktop.
"Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts" – Richard Feynman
New Sounds plausible, sadly.
There apparently was a lot of clutter on the desktop, but it was mostly documents. (And based on operator skill level, that makes sense as grabbing video would be a couple of hoops too many to jump through.) Given that, the machine now has 120GB free space left so a lack of space seems unlikely to have been the cause.

It is bonkers that a cluttered desktop can stop unrelated applications from functioning properly (the mail database resides in another directory after all).
New (late to the party)
This was true, and widely known, even in pre-OS X days. I had a colleague who somehow contrived to drag a couple of thousand files onto his desktop, causing his (personal) Mac to go into a swoon from which it never revived. I’ll sometimes drag a web location icon onto the desktop, but I never allow more than half a dozen of these to accumulate. Seeing the typical Windows desktop with half the screen filled with neatly arrayed icons puts my teeth on edge. For the rest, yes, FTFF.

     This just doesn't sound right - (scoenye) - (12)
         That does sound weird. -NT - (a6l6e6x)
         Is it possible "remove from the desktop" meant "delete this app"? -NT - (drook) - (1)
             Unless they did and forgot to mention that - (scoenye)
         Depends on what "dragged off the desktop" means - (malraux) - (8)
             A user who has now "learned" that when something is broken she needs to clear her desktop -NT - (drook) - (1)
                 Yep - (malraux)
             Possible - (scoenye) - (5)
                 Huh, that's a weird one then. -NT - (malraux)
                 Maybe it's related to this? - (Another Scott) - (3)
                     probably has to do with file handles in a directory maxing out - (boxley)
                     Sounds plausible, sadly. - (scoenye) - (1)
                         (late to the party) - (rcareaga)

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