The Origin of the Word “Philately”

It was our intention simply to give under this heading a translation of G. Herpin’s article in the Collectionneur de Timbres-Poste of 1864, an article which, to the best of our recollection, has never been reproduced in its entirety in the English language. On further consideration, however, we think it will be more fitly prefaced by a reproduction of the entry in the New English Dictionary, which gives, as might be expected, an accurate history of the word and its derivatives.

Philately (fəˈladlē). [ad. F. philatélie, f. Gr. φιλωο-, Philo- + άτελής free from tax or charge, άτέλεια exemption from payment (έξ άτελίας without payment, free, franco). Proposed by M. Herpin, a postage-stamp collector, in Le Collectionneur de Timbres-poste (15 Nov. 1864).

(When a letter was “carriage-free” or carriage-prepaid by the sender, it was formerly in various countries stamped FREE, or FRANCO; the fact is now indicated by the letter bearing an impressed receipt stamp, or its substitute, an adhesive label (commonly called a postage-stamp), for the amount; the Greek άτλής being a passable equivalent of free or franco, has for the purpose of word-making been employed to express the freimarke, franco-bollo, franco-mark, frank-stamp, or “postage stamp,” and so to supply the second element in philatélie)]

The pursuit of collecting, arranging, and studying the stamped envelopes or covers, adhesive labels or “postage stamps,” postcards, and other devices employed in different countries and at different times, in effecting the prepayment of letters or packets sent by post; stamp-collecting.

1865 Stamp-Coll. Mag. 1 Dec. 182/2 He [M. Herpin] proposes the word philatélie, which we anglicize into “philately”… Twelve months have glided on… and the French terms philatéle and philatélie, as well as their English equivalents “philately,” “philatelist,” and “philatelic”… have become household words in the postage-stamp collecting world. Ibid. Advts., The works of the Philatelic Society of France. 1867 Philatelist I. 37 A poser to the non-initiated in philately. 1881 Athenaeum I Oct. 431/2 it is possibly a question whether the science should properly be called philately or timbrophily.

Hence Philatelic (filăte·lik) a., relating to or engaged in philately; so Philate·licala.; hence Philate·lically adv.;Phila·telism, philately; Phila·telist a person devoted to philately, a stamp-collector (whence Philateli·stic a.);Phila·teloma·niac, one with whom stamp collecting has become a mania.

1865 Philatelic, Philatelist [see above]. 1866 (title) The Philatelist: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine for Stamp Collectors. 1871Routledge’s Ev. Boy’s Ann. Suppl. Apr. 7/1 A manuscript Philatelic Magazine. 1871 E.L. Pemberton in Stamp-Coll. Mag. IX. 130 The faults .. incident to American philatelism. 1872 (title) The Philatelic Journal. 1882 Sat. Rev. 15 Apr. 472/2 Many a parent . . will now hasten to provide him instead with the records of philatelism. 1884 Boston (Mass.) Jrnl. 26 July. It is valued at about $1000 by philatelomaniacs. 1890 Times 20 May 5 On May 19, 1890, an exhibition was opened of postage stamps collected by the London Philatelic Society. 1890 Standard 25 Apr. 5/6 The philatelistic scholar. 1893 Westm. Gaz. 18 Oct. 3/1 Of the exhibition itself .. we shall not attempt to speak .. philatelically.

It is possible, though hardly probable, that quotations of slightly earlier date, might be found for some of the derivatives, but the only addition we could suggest would be “philatelogical,” not that we commend that extraordinary invention, but it is a name actually used in the title of a West Indian philatelic society, and therefore, we suppose, might claim inclusion. Mr. Creeke, in his “Stamp Collecting,” mentions “photaclist,” but having traced this to an early volume of the Philatelic Record, we find it there charitably attributed to a misprint. “Philatelical” seems to have been an invention of E.L. Pemberton’s, if not his exclusive property; at all events, since his death it has, as far as we are aware, ceased to be in use.

From Herpin’s article it will be seen that he proposes “philatle” as the equivalent for “stamp collector,” but his suggestion does not seem to have met with any response. We should be glad to know if the word was ever in actually use and also to learn at what date the now generally accepted “philatéliste” was first used in French. Maury, writing, as late as 1896, of the word “philatélie,” says that it had become acclimatized in France during the last few years only, though in other countries it was used exclusively. “The curious thing is,” he adds, “that in France they give it an English origin, while in England it is ascribed to Germany!” If any such ascription were really made, it must have been by some very ill-informed scribe, as the French origin of the word had always been known to English collectors.

Why should France have delayed for thirty years the adoption of Herpin’s word? We think the answer is simply that, during those thirty years, the word was never taken up by any French society or periodical, and if the further question is asked, why should no society or periodical have taken it up, we reply that the Société Franaise de Timbrologie was dominated by Dr. Legrand, the sworn foe of “philatélie”; Mahé, the publisher, was from first to last a “timbrophile”; and Maury himself was content to keep unchanged the time-honored name of Collectionneur de Timbres-Poste for his periodical. The ready adoption of “philately” in England is to be explained – or so at least the present writer believes – in an equally simple way. When, in 1866, Stafford Smith founded his new periodical, he had to cast about for an original title, and one as far removed as possible from that of the Stamp-Collector’s Magazine with which he had been till then associated. He chose the euphonious and novel name of Philatelist and as the magazine found favor, so no doubt did the word and when, in 1869, the Philatelic Society, London, was formed, “philately” may be said to have obtained the crown of popular approval. (Smith’s choice was doubtless that of the publisher and not of the editor, Dr. Viner, who would probably have chosen Philotypist.)

We will now, without further comment, reproduce Herpin’s article, which we give under its French title. This, in the Stamp-Collector’s Magazine of December 1865, is rendered as “What shall we call it?” on the ground that a literal translation would be an offense against English propriety. The implied rebuke may or may not be just, be we can see no reason for departing from the standard of good taste set by a past generation.


Although postage stamps have been studied and collected for the last six or seven years, is it not strange that no one has yet thought of giving a name to an attractive pastime which has brought happiness to some and fortune to others? It is impossible to look on the word timbromanie as an acceptable designation. As a matter of fact, this is nothing more than a slightly disparaging term, which some would-be funny people pronounce in a sarcastic tone, quite harmless, however, in its effect. Until now it has been used for want of something better, but it is time to dismiss it ignominiously from our vocabulary; and what is more, we readers and writers of this magazine must try and forget that the hateful expression ever even existed. And now, assuming that the beast is dead, and its venom too, we must find a successor not only without anything in common with it, but also with as many good points as it had bad ones. But where can this rara avis be found? As everyone is free to give his advice on this weighty question, and as fortune favors the brave, we are emboldened to set down our opinion here.

We have all noticed that most new words have ancient words for their roots, no doubt on account of the attraction that extremes have for one another. Now, as neologisms borrow their elements from the Greeks and Latins, we will make a little excursion into one of these languages. We can hear a score of critics exclaiming:

“Qui nous délivrera des Grecs et des Romains!”

but regardless of these vain clamors we shall, as M. Baour-Lormian says, “pursue our career,” and observe that, as Numismatics take their name from the Latin numisma, medal, and sphragistics (the study of seals – no pun intended) from the Greek σφραγιζω, I seal, we might also borrow from the language, seeing how rich it is, and propose to collectors the word Philatélie, as expressing the idea which the odious term above-mentioned endeavored to ridicule.

Philatélie is formed from two Greek words: φιλος, friend, amateur, and ατελης (in speaking of an object) free, exempt from any charge or tax, franked; substantive, ατελια. Philately therefore signifies: love of the study of everything related to franking.

Now that the word has been uttered and the new born child has seen the light of day, in the hope of increasing its chances of good luck and prosperity we urgently beg our young and charming lady readers to be its godmothers. “What!” I hear someone say. “You are talking Greek to girls? That is a strange way of trying to please them when you are asking for their support.” Perhaps my way is not so mistaken as you think; who knows if its very singularity may not be its best recommendation? Besides, where should some new thing or word seek help and protection if not from young people who are fond of novelties of every kind and of whom the weak very rarely ask in vain for generosity. Furthermore, in the name of the Greek language, we do not pretend to make any of the foolish claims of Molire’s Vadius (Les Femmes Savantes, Act iii, sc. 5). And so, without temerity but also without embarrassment, we ask for the approbation of the fairer half of mankind, being assured that, if we obtain it, we shall have that of the other half.

To sum up, we do not attempt to lay down any law; but, now that the lists are open, we are waiting for and even soliciting communications respecting this question, assuring our readers in advance that we are quite prepared to defer to the opinion of some better-inspired Philatle.

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