Stamp collecting's strange lingo, translated

Jul 28, 2003, 12 PM

By Rick Miller

To the uninitiated, the casual banter of stamp collectors discussing their hobby can sound like a foreign language.

That's because it often is. Philately is shot through with foreign loan words and phrases.

Even more confusing is that normal, everyday English words and phrases when used in a stamp-collecting context often take on a special meaning pretty much unrelated to their mundane usage.

The following glossary takes a poke at explaining some of the more common and some of the more obscure examples of stamp collecting lingo.

Ambulant — A phrase found in many foreign postmarks that denotes a traveling post office, such as a railway post office or a highway post office. Also "ambulante."

The 20-centavo dark brown Manuel Bulnes stamp, Chile Scott 181, shown in Figure 1, bears a March 13, 1932, ambulant cancel.

Burelage (pronounced BUR-[ah]-lej) — A design of fine, intricate lines printed on the face of security paper, either to discourage counterfeiting or to prevent the cleaning and reuse of a stamp. The burelage on some stamps is part of the stamp design. See also "moire" and "security paper."

A Serbian 4-dinar+12d deep blue Christ and Virgin Mary occupation semipostal stamp with rose burelage, Scott NB10, is shown in Figure 2.

Catapult mail — Not mail flung over the wall of a besieged city, but mail flown by an airplane launched by steam catapult from a ship at sea.

The first catapult mail was flown in 1928 by a plane launched from the Ile de France. Catapult mail faded in the 1930s as more transoceanic mail was carried by Zeppelins and long-range airplanes.

Cliche (pronounced klee-SHAY) — Not a trite saying, but the printing unit for a single stamp design. Individual cliches sometimes were combined to make up the printing plate for a sheet of stamps.

Etiquette — Not table manners, but any auxiliary postal marking or label applied to a cover other than the postmark and cancellation.

Granite paper — Not made of stone, but paper with colored fibers running through it.

Grill — Nothing to do with cooking or the covering for automobile radiators, but a grid pattern made up of parallel lines or points pressed into stamp paper to break the paper fibers and cause them to absorb ink. Grilling was intended to stop the washing of cancellation ink and the illegal reuse of stamps.

Gutter — Not a construction for carrying away rain water, but the selvage that separates panes on stamp sheets.

When stamps are issued in uncut sheets, collectors often cut them up into gutter pairs or gutter blocks with stamps from different panes connected to each other by the gutter.

Gutter snipe — Not a person of low moral or economic station, but a miscut resulting in a stamp from one pane that has attached the full gutter and part of a stamp from another pane.

Killer — Not a homicidal felon, but the cancellation part of a duplex canceler.

Killer cancel — An undesirably heavy cancellation that obscures the stamp design.

Knife — Neither a weapon nor a table implement, but the die used to cut the paper of an envelope. Also refers to the characteristic shape of postal stationery envelopes after they have been cut.

Laid paper — A type of stamp paper with thin parallel lines and thicker perpendicular lines that are essentially watermarks caused by the wires and chains of the paper machine. Stamps can be either vertically or horizontally laid.

Line pair — A pair of coil stamps with a line of extraneous ink between the stamp designs.

Guide line pairs of stamps printed on a flatbed press show part of the deliberate guide line printed between panes.

Joint line pairs of stamps printed on a rotary press show lines formed by ink that collected between curved sections of the rotary plates.

Moire (pronounced mo-RAY) — A fine network pattern of intricate lines overprinted on stamps to prevent counterfeiting or unauthorized use. See also "burelage" and "security paper." A 5¢ ultramarine King George V stamp with violet moire overprint, British Honduras Scott 87, is shown in Figure 3.

Mute cancel — A dated postmark that does not give the name or location of the canceling office.

Native paper — Locally made paper of inferior quality for printing.

Paquebot (pronounced PAK-ah-bo) — A postal marking applied to letters mailed aboard ship.

Paraph (pronounced PAR-af) — A signature or contraction of a signature found on some stamps of Cuba and Puerto Rico (Spanish administration).

Pelure paper (pronounced pay-LOOR) — A very thin and hard paper, similar to cigarette paper and often translucent

Roulette — Not a game of chance played with a spinning wheel and a marble, but a type of stamp separation in which a series of cuts are made without any paper being removed.

Security paper — Paper with a security imprint or device used to discourage counterfeiting. See also "burelage" and "moire."

A Venezuelan 7½-centimo dark green Simon Bolivar stamp on bluish Winchester security paper, Scott 294, is shown in Figure 4.

Se-tenant (pronounced say-TEN-ent) — A loan word from the French meaning "joined together." Se-tenant stamps are two or more attached stamps of different design, color or type. Think of se-tenant stamps as the Ang and Chang (the original Siamese twins) of stamp collecting.

A se-tenant block of 40-kopiyok Scythian Military history stamps, Ukraine Scott 452, is shown in Figure 5.

Spandrel — The space between a rectangular frame and a non-rectangular form enclosing the vignette of the stamp design. The term comes from the name for spaces at the sides of an arch between columns or piers. See the U.S. 1894 issues with triangles in the spandrels.

Specimen — Usually not found in a test tube or upon a microscope slide, but a stamp or postal stationery item distributed as a sample to postal authorities and marked with an overprint or a punch to prevent postal use.

Specimens from English-speaking countries are usually overprinted "SPECIMEN." Foreign equivalents include "MUESTRA," "MUSTER" and "SAGGIO."

A specimen of a Jamaican 2d rose Queen Victoria stamp, Scott 2, is shown in Figure 6.

Straightedge — An increasingly endangered stamp species, as more and more older stamps are hunted down and perforated. U.S. stamps printed by flat plate or rotary plate have straightedges on the stamps from the exterior rows and columns of the pane where panes were cut apart.

The Jamaican specimen stamp shown in Figure 6 has a straightedge at its left.

Older stamps with one or more straightedges usually sell for considerably less than stamps that are perforated on all sides.

Many world stamps issued since about 1980 normally have straightedges.

Tete-beche (pronounced tet-BESH) — Another French loan word meaning literally, "head-to-foot." A tete-beche pair is one with the stamps upside down in relation to each other.

A tete-beche pair of 1-litas Palanga stamps, Lithuania Scott 698, is shown in Figure 7.

Tied — No ropes involved, but a stamp is said to be tied when the cancellation or postmark extends from the stamp to the paper of the cover, showing that the stamp was on the cover at the time that the postmark or cancel was applied. If the stamp is not tied, there is always the possibility that it was added later to enhance the cover's desirability. Some locals are tied by an acid stain rather than ink.

"Too late" — Does not refer to missing supper, but rather to a marking applied to a cover to show that a late fee for special handling was paid for delivery of the letter to a ship or train after the regular mail had already been dispatched.

Some postmasters locally applied a "TOO LATE" handstamped overprint to postage stamps to be used in payment of late fees.

Trial separation — Not a period of living apart preparatory to divorce, but an experimental method of separating stamps before standard perforations or rouletting were adopted.

A British 1d red Queen Victoria stamp with the Treasury Roulette trial separation is shown in Figure 8.

Triptych (pronounced TRIP-tik) — A strip of three se-tenant stamps, the design of which forms one overall design: for example, the three 13¢ Spirit of '76 stamps issued in celebration of the bicentennial of the American Revolution, United States Scott 1631a.

Underprint — Words, symbols or other printing usually applied to the back of a stamp, usually as advertising. Underprinting also occurs on the front of a stamp, as with early French stamps.

Varnish — Lines or bars of clear lacquer applied to the face of a stamp to prevent removal of the cancellation or to activate facer-canceler machinery.

Vignette — The central portrait, figure or other design element of a stamp.

Wing margin — A stamp from the side of a pane perforated so it has an unusually wide unprinted side area.

Wrapper — Not the outside of a burrito, but the paper cover wrapped around a newspaper or other printed matter for postal delivery. Postal stationery wrappers include an imprinted stamp. Plain wrappers required the addition of a postage stamp.