Philatelic Terms


This list of philatelic terms was originally assembled by Fred J. Melville, and appeared in his book, Chats on Postage Stamps. We have modernized it where appropriate, but must remark in passing that Mr. Meliville was delightfully thorough in putting together these terms.


Albino.—An impression made either from an uninked embossing die, or from a similar inked die, under which two pieces of paper have been simultaneously placed, only the upper one receiving the colour.

Aniline.—A term strictly applicable to coal-tar colours, but commonly used for brilliant tones very soluble in water.

Bâtonné.See Paper.

Bisect.—A term applied to a moiety of a stamp, used as of half the value of the entire label.

Bleuté.—This word implies that the blueness of the paper has been acquired since the stamp was printed, as the result of chemical action.

Block.—An unsevered group of stamps, consisting of at least two horizontal rows of two each.

Bogus.—An expression applied to any stamp not designed for use.

Burelé.—A fine network forming part of design of stamp, or covering the front or back of entire sheet.

Cancelled to order.—Stamps which, though postmarked or otherwise obliterated, have not done postal or fiscal duty.

Centimetre (cm.).—The one-hundredth part of a metre = .3937 inch.

Chalky, or chalk-surfaced.—Before being used for printing, paper sometimes has its surface coated with a preparation largely composed of chalk or similar substance: this renders the print liable to rub off if wetted; and, in combination with a doubly-fugitive ink, renders fraudulent cleaning practically impossible.

Cliché.—The ultimate production from the die, and of a number of which the printing plate is composed.

Colour trials.—Impressions taken in various colours from a plate, so that a selection may be made.

Comb machine.—A variety of perforating machine, which produces, at each descent of the needles, a line of holes along a horizontal (or vertical) row of stamps, and a short line of holes down the two sides (or top and bottom) of each stamp in that horizontal (or vertical) row. And see Perforation.

Commemoratives.—A term applied to labels issued chiefly for sale to collectors, and commemorating the contemporaneous happening, or the anniversary, centenary, &c., of some often unimportant or almost forgotten event.

Compound.See Perforation.

Control.—An arbitrary letter or number, or both, printed on the margin of a sheet of stamps, for facilitating a check on the supply. Also used to denote a design overprinted on a stamp (e.g. Persia, 1899) as a protection against forgery.

Great Britain postage stamps

Pair of Great Britain embossed Six Pence.

Cape of Good Hope

Pair of Cape of Good Hope Triangular Shilling.

Penny Red

Block of four Great Britain Penny Red.

Strip of three Grenada “4d.” on Two Shillings.


Current number.—The consecutive number of a plate, irrespective of the denomination of the stamp.

Cut-outs.—A term used to denote the impressions, originally part of envelopes, postcards, &c., but cut off for use as ordinary stamps.

Cut-squares.—Stamps cut from envelopes, &c., with a rectangular margin of paper attached, are known as “cut-squares.”

Dickinson paper.See Paper.

Die.—The original engraving from which the printing plates are produced; or, sometimes, from which the stamps are printed direct. See Plate and Embossed.

Doubly-fugitive.See Fugitive.

Double-print.—Strictly applicable to two similar impressions, more or less coincident, on the same piece of paper; though often, but erroneously, applied to instances where the paper, not being firmly held, has touched the plate, so receiving a partial impression, and then, resuming its correct position, has been properly printed.

Duty-plate.—Many modern stamps are printed from two plates, one being the same (key-plate, which see) for all the values, but the other differing for each denomination: this latter is the duty-plate.

Electro.—A reproduction of the original die, made by means of a galvanic battery from a secondary die. See Matrix.

Embossed.—Stamps produced from a die, or reproductions thereof, on which the design is cut to varying depths, are necessarily in relief, i.e., embossed. And see Printing.

Engraved.—The term is often used to denote stamps printed direct from a plate, on which the lines of the design are cut into the metal. And see Printing.

Entires.—This expression includes not only postal stationery (which see), but when used in describing an adhesive stamp, as being “on entire,” implies that the stamp is on the envelope or letter as when posted.

Envelope stamp.—A stamp belonging to, and printed on, an envelope.

Error.—An incorrect stamp—either in design, colour, paper, &c.—which has been issued for use.

Essay.—A rejected design for a stamp; in the French sense also applied to proofs of accepted designs.

Facsimile.—A euphemism for a forgery.

Fake.—A genuine stamp, which has been manipulated in order to increase its philatelic or postal value.

Fiscal.—A stamp intended for payment of a duty or tax, as distinguished from postage.

Flap ornament.—This refers to the ornament (usually) embossed on the tip of the upper flap of envelopes, and variously termed Rosace or Tresse, or (incorrectly) Patte, which see.

Fugitive.—Colours printed in “singly-fugitive” ink suffer on an attempt to remove an ordinary ink cancellation; but if in “doubly-fugitive” ink it was thought that the removal of writing-ink would injure the appearance of the stamp. And see Chalky


Plate Number

The figures “201” indicate the Plate Number, and “238” the Current Number. The Plate Number is also on each of these stamps in microscopic numerals.

Cyprus pair of stamps

Corner pair showing Current Number “575” in margin.

Corner pair of stamps

Corner pair showing Plate Number “15” in margin. The Plate Number is also seen in small figures on each stamp.

The above stamps are those of Great Britain overprinted for use in Cyprus.


Generalising.—The collecting of all the postage-stamps of the world.

Government imitation.—Sometimes, when it is desired to reprint an obsolete issue, the original dies or plates are not forthcoming. New dies have, in these circumstances, been officially made, and the resulting labels are euphemistically called “Government imitations.” “Forgeries” would be more candid.

Granite.See Paper.

Grille.—Small plain dots, generally arranged in a small rectangle, but sometimes covering the entire stamp, embossed on certain issues of Peru and the United States. The idea of this was to so break up the fibre of the paper, as to allow the ink of the postmark to penetrate it and render cleaning impossible.

Guillotine.—The term used to define a perforating-machine which punches a single straight line of holes at each descent of the needles.

Gumpap.—A fancy term of opprobrium applied to a stamp issued purely for sale to collectors and not to meet a postal requirement.

Hair-line.—Originally used to indicate the fine line crossing the outer angles of the corner blocks of some British stamps, inserted to distinguish impressions from certain plates, this term is now often employed to denote any fine line, in white or in colour, and whether intentional or accidental, which may be found on a stamp.

Hand-made.See Paper.

Harrow.—The form of perforating-machine which is capable of operating on an entire sheet of stamps at each descent of the needles. And see Perforation.

Head-plate.See Key-plate.

Imperforate.—Stamps which have not been perforated or rouletted (both of which see) are thus described.

Imprimatur.—A word usually found in conjunction with “sheet,” when it indicates the first impression from a plate endorsed with an official certificate to that effect, and a direction that the plate be used for printing stamps.

Imprint.—The name of the printer, whether below each stamp, or only on the margin of the sheet, is called the “imprint.”

Inverted.—Simply upside-down. And see Reversed.

Irregular.See Perforation.

“Jubilee” line.—Since 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s first Jubilee—whence the name—a line of “printer’s rule” has been added round each pane, or plate, of most surface-printed British and British Colonial stamps, in order to protect the edges of the outer rows of clichés from undue wear and tear. The “rule” shows as a coloured line on the sheets of stamps.

Key-plate.—Stamps of the same design, when printed in two colours, require two plates for each value; that which prints the design (apart from the value, and sometimes the name of the country), and is common to and used for two or more stamps, is termed the head-plate or key-plate. And see Duty-plate.

Gambia stamps

A sheet of stamps of Gambia, composed of two Panes of sixty stamps each.

Crown and CA watermark

The single “Crown and CA” watermark as it appears looking from the back of the Gambia sheet illustrated above. The watermark is arranged in panes to coincide with the impressions from the plate.


Knife.—This is a technical term for the cutter of the machine which cuts out the (unfolded) envelope blank, and is principally used in connection with the numerous varieties of shape in the United States envelopes, amongst which the same size may show several variations in the flap.

Laid.See Paper.

Laid bâtonné.See Paper.

Line-engraved.—Is properly applied to a print from a plate engraved in taille douce (which see) but is often applied to the plate itself.

Lithographed.—Stamps printed from a design laid down on a stone and neither raised nor depressed in the printing lines are denoted by this term. And see Printing.

Locals.—Stamps having a franking power within a definitely restricted area.

Manila.See Paper.

Matrix.—A counterpart impression in metal or other material from an original die, and which in its turn is used to produce copies exactly similar to the original die.

Millimetre (mm.).—The one-thousandth part of a metre = .03937 inch.

Mill-sheet.See Sheet.

Mint.—A term used to denote that a stamp or envelope, &c., is in exactly the same condition as when issued by the post-office—unused, clean, unmutilated in the slightest degree and with all the original gum undisturbed.

Mixed (Perforations).—In some of the 1901-7 stamps of New Zealand, the original perforation was to some extent defective: such portions of the sheet were patched with strips of paper on the back and re-perforated, usually in a different gauge.

Mounted.—Usually applied to indicate that a stamp, which has been trimmed close to the design, has had new margins added. And see Fake.

Native-made paper.See Paper.

Obliteration.—A general term used for any mark employed to cancel a stamp and so render it incapable of further use.

Obsolete.—Strictly, an obsolete stamp is one which has been withdrawn from circulation and is no longer available for postal use; but the term is often applied simply to old issues, no longer on sale at the post-office.

Original die.—The first engraved piece of metal, from which the printing plates are directly or indirectly produced.

Original gum.—Practically all stamps were, before issue, gummed on the back, and the actual gum so applied is known as “original”: the usual abbreviation is “o.g.”: it is also implied in the expression “mint“, which see.

Overprint.—An inscription or device printed upon a stamp additional to its original design. Cf. Surcharge.

Pair.—Two stamps joined together as when originally printed. Without qualification, a pair is generally accepted as being of two stamps side by side: if a pair of two stamps joined top to bottom is intended, it is spoken of as a vertical pair.


A “Bisect,” or “Bisected Provisional.” The One Penny stamp of Jamaica was in 1861 permitted to be cut in halves diagonally, and each half used as a halfpenny stamp.


Pane.—Entire sheets of stamps are frequently divided into sections by means of one or more spaces running horizontally or (and) vertically between similarly sized groups of stamps: each of these sections or groups is termed a pane.

Paper.—The two main divisions of paper are hand-made and machine-made: the former is manufactured, as its name indicates, by hand, sheet by sheet, by means of a special apparatus; the latter is made entirely by the aid of machinery and generally in long continuous rolls, which are afterwards cut up as required.

Each of these, apart from its substance, which may vary from the thinnest of tissue papers to almost thin card, is divisible according to its texture, distinguishable on being held up to the light, into—

Wove, of perfectly plain even texture, such as is generally used for books.

Laid: this shows lines close together, usually with other lines, an inch or so apart, crossing them—”cream laid” notepaper is an example.

Bâtonné is wove paper, with very distinct lines as wide apart as those on ordinary ruled paper.

Laid bâtonné: similar to bâtonné, but the spaces between the distinct lines are filled in with laid lines close together.

Quadrillé paper is marked with small squares or oblongs.

Rep is the term applied to wove paper which has been passed between ridged rollers, so that it becomes, to use a somewhat exaggerated description, corrugated: the small elevation or ridge on one side of the paper coincides with a depression or furrow on the other side—the thickness of the paper is the same throughout.

Ribbed paper, on the other hand, is different from rep, in that one side is smooth and the other is in alternate furrows and ridges—the paper is thinner in the furrows than it is on the ridges.

Native paper, so called, is yellowish or greyish, often with the feel and appearance of parchment; generally laid somewhat irregularly, but often wove. The early issues of Cashmere and some of the stamps and cards of Nepal are printed on native paper: it is always hand-made.

Pelure is a very thin, hard, tough paper, usually greyish in colour.

Manila is a strong, light, but coarse paper, and is used for wrappers, large envelopes, &c.; usually it is smooth on one side and rough on the other.

Safety paper contains ingredients which would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to remove an obliteration in writing-ink without at the same time destroying the impression of the stamp: usually this paper is more or less blued, owing to the use of prussiate of potash, and its combination with impurities arising in the manufacture.

Granite paper is almost white, with short coloured fibres in it, sometimes very visible, but at others necessitating the use of a magnifying glass.

Dickinson paper, so called from its inventor, has a continuous thread, or parallel threads, of silk in the centre of its substance, embedded there in the pulp at an early stage of the manufacture.

Paraphe is the flourish which is sometimes added at the end of a signature: examples on stamps are found in the 1873-6 issues of Porto Rico.

Patte.—French for the loose flap of an envelope; it is sometimes (but incorrectly) used for Rosace or Tresse, the ornament on the flap.

Pelure.See Paper.

Pen-cancelled denotes cancellation by pen-and-ink, as opposed to the more customary postmark; it usually implies fiscal use.

Percé is a French term denoting slits or pricks, no part of the paper being removed, in contradistinction to perforated, in which small discs of paper are punched out. There are several kinds of perçage, or, in English, rouletting:—

Percé en arc, the cuts being curved, so that, on severing a pair of stamps, the edge of one shows small arches, whilst the other has a series of small scallops, something like, but more curved than, the perforations on the edges of an ordinary perforated stamp.

Percé en ligne: the cuts or slits are straight, as if a continuous line had been broken up into small sections. This variety usually goes by the English term rouletted.

Percé en pointe denotes that the slits are comparatively large and cut evenly in zigzag, so that the edges of a stamp show a series of equal-sided triangular projections.

Percé en points, usually expressed as pin-perforated, implies a pricking of holes with a sharp point, but without removal of paper, which is merely pushed aside.

Percé en scie is somewhat similar to percé en pointe, except that the slits are smaller and are cut in uneven zigzag (alternately long and short), so that the edge of a severed stamp is like that of a fine saw.

Percé en serpentin occurs when the paper is cut in comparatively large wavy curves of varying depth, with little breaks in the cutting which serve to hold the stamps together.

And see Perforated and Perforation.

Perforated—in French piqué. This word implies removal of small discs of paper, not simply slits or cuts. And see Percé.

Perforation is either “regular,” where the number of holes within a similar space is constant along the entire row; or, where the number varies more or less, “irregular.” The gauge of the perforations (or roulettes) of a stamp is measured by a perforation-gauge, a piece of metal, card, or celluloid, on which is engraved or printed a long series of rows of dots, each row being two centimetres in length and containing a varying number of dots from, say, 6 to 17 or 18.

A stamp, the edge of which shows holes (perforated) corresponding in spacing and number to the row on the gauge marked, say “12,” is said to be “perforated 12.” If the stamp gauges the same on all four sides, it is simply “perforated …”; if the top and bottom are of one gauge, say 12, and the sides, say, 14, the stamp would be perforated “12 × 14.” If the gauge varies on each of the four sides—an unlikely combination—then the order of noting same is, top (say 12), right (say 11), bottom (say 13), and left (say 15)—”perforated 12 × 11 × 13 × 15.” In the above the gauges are supposed to be regular.

Perforation Gauge



Should, however, the gauge be irregular, the extremes are noted even if not showing on the stamp: for instance, a stamp may be perforated with a machine, which, in its entire length, gradually varies from 12 to 16 holes in the two centimetres, though the stamp itself does not show all those gauges. Such a stamp would be “perforated 12 to 16.”

On the other hand, a row of perforations, instead of gradually altering in gauge, may do so abruptly; for instance, along a row of holes, part may gauge 14, the next part 16, and then 161/2, all quite distinct over a particular space. This would be termed “perforated 14, 16, 161/2,” implying that the intermediate gauges did not exist.

The use of a regular machine, in conjunction with one of irregular gauge, might produce, say, “perforated 14” (horizontally) “× 12 to 15” (vertically); and so on.

Stamps perforated, horizontally and vertically, by differently gauged machines are sometimes said to be “perforated, compound of … and …”. There are many difficulties in the way of obtaining a full knowledge of the combinations and vagaries of perforating-machines.

Perforation-gauge.—A means of measuring perforation or roulette, which see.

Philatelic.—The adjective of Philately.

Philatelist.—One who studies stamps.

Philately—from two Greek words, “φίλος” (= fond of) and “ἀτέλεια” (= exemption from tax)—signifies a fondness for things (viz., stamps) which denote an exemption from tax, i.e., that the tax, or postage, has been paid. The word is a little far-fetched to imply the study of stamps, but as “Philately” has been the accepted term for over forty years, “Philately” it will doubtless remain, even if some one succeeds in finding a word which more accurately expresses the popular and scientific hobby.

Pin-perforated.See Percé.

Plate is the term used, not always quite correctly, to describe the ultimate reproductions from the die which constitute the printing surface in the manufacture of stamps: the word covers not only a sheet of metal with stamps engraved on it, but also a group of clichés or a forme of printer’s type and even a lithographic stone.

Plate number is the consecutive number of each plate of a particular value, appearing on the margin of the plates and (in some of the British series) on the stamps themselves.

Postal-fiscal is a fiscal stamp the use of which for postal purposes has been duly authorised, in contradistinction to a “fiscal postally used,” a use which has been tacitly permitted in many countries.

Postal stationeryi.e., envelopes, postcards, letter-cards, wrappers, telegram forms, &c.: frequently termed entires.

Postmark.—The official obliteration applied to a stamp to prevent its further postal use.

Pre-cancelled.—Two or three countries have adopted the system, to save time in the post-office, of supplying sheets of stamps cancelled prior to use. This may be a convenience, but the practice undoubtedly opens the door to possible fraud.

Print is an impression taken from any die, plate, forme, or stone.

Printing, in its fullest sense, is reproducing from a dieplatestereotype, &c. (all of which see). There are, on this definition, four kinds of production: “Embossing,” where the paper is impressed with a raised design, by pressure from a cut-out die (see Embossed); “Surface-printing” or “typography,” where the portions of the plate which receive the ink and print the design are raised: this process causes a slight indentation on the surface of the paper and a corresponding elevation at the back; “Printing direct from plate” (so-called Line-engraved, which see), in which the portions to be inked are recessed: in this process, the printed design on the stamps is in very slight relief, due to the ink being taken from the recessed engraving. “Lithography” is printing from a stone, on which the design has been drawn or otherwise laid down: impressions from a stone are flat.

Proof.—An impression, properly in black, from the die, plate, or stone, taken in order to see if the design, &c., has been properly engraved or reproduced.

Provisional.—A make-shift intended to supply a temporary want of the proper stamp, which may have been unexpectedly sold out, or may not have been supplied owing to lack of time.

Quadrillé.See Paper.

Re-issue denotes the bringing again into use of a stamp which has become obsolete, or at any rate has been long out of use at the post-office; it sometimes implies a new printing.

Remainders.—Stamps printed during the period of issue and left on hand when that issue has gone out of use.

Reprint.—Strictly a reprint is an impression taken from the identical original die, plate, stone, or block, after the stamps printed therefrom have gone out of use. The term is used to include printings from new plates or stones, made from the original die. And see Government imitations.

Rep.See Paper.

Retouch, re-set, re-engraved, re-drawn, re-cut.—All these terms have a somewhat similar meaning, and imply repairs to, or alterations of, the die, plates, stones, or blocks: instances of most drastic re-engraving are known, e.g., that of the 1848 Two Pence (“Post Paid”) of Mauritius, the plate of which was so altered as to produce a practically new stamp, the Two Pence, “large fillet,” of 1859; and the Half Tornese “Arms” of Naples, which had the entire centre removed from each of the two hundred impressions on the plate and replaced by the Cross of Savoy. To differentiate—retouching is generally undertaken to remedy minor defects caused by wear and tear: re-setting suggests slight re-arrangement of stamps made up, wholly or partly, of printer’s type; re-engraving, the replacing of parts of a design worn away by use or intention: re-drawing rather leads one to infer that the original design has been reproduced in an improved form; and re-cutting implies going over the original die, &c., and strengthening the engraving, with, perhaps, slight accidental variations of the design.

Revenue.—This word indicates availability for fiscal use, as distinguished from postal use. A stamp may be available for either purpose, or for one only; the use is almost invariably indicated by the inscription.

Reversed.—Backwards-way; “as in a looking-glass.” The term is often, but quite erroneously, used for inverted—which see—implying upside-down.

Ribbed.See Paper.

Rosace.—The small ornament frequently found on the upper flap of old envelopes; known also as tresse.

Rough perforation.—When the holes in the lower plate of the perforating-machine get damaged or partly clogged up, or the punches are very worn, the perforation becomes very defective, the little discs of paper not being punched out, but (though generally distinct) left only partly cut through: this state is termed “rough,” but must not be confused with percé en points (pin-perforated), which see.

Rouletted.See Percé.

Rouletted in coloured lines is a variety of rouletting, and always so termed, in which the slits or cuts are made by means of type (“printer’s rule”) a little higher than the clichés or stereos composing the plate, and which cut into the paper under the pressure of the printing-press.

Safety paper.See Paper.

Seebecks.“—The late Mr. N. F. Seebeck, the contractor to various South American Republics had an arrangement under which there was a new issue of stamps every year, he to retain for his own benefit any demonetised remainders of the previous set: stamps provided under such conditions are called after their originator.

Se tenant.—A French expression signifying that the stamps referred to have not been separated: usually employed in reference to an error, or variety, when still forming a pair with a normal stamp.

Serpentine roulette.See Percé en serpentin.

Sheet (of paper).—There are three “sheets”: a mill-sheet, as manufactured; a sheet as printed, which may be, and often is, less than a mill-sheet; and a “post-office” sheet, either the whole or an arbitrary part of a printed sheet, so divided for convenience of reckoning.

Silk-thread paper.See Paper (Dickinson).

Single-line perforation.See Guillotine.

Spandrel is the term for the triangular space between a circle, oval, or curve, and the rectangular frame enclosing it.

Specialising.—To develop in a collection a complete record of the inception, history, and use of the stamps of a particular country, or group of countries, in the fullest and most detailed manner. In contradistinction to Generalising (which see).

Stationery.See Entires.

Stereotype or stereo.—A reproduction of the original design, made by means of a papier-maché or other mould, in type-metal. And see Matrix.

Strip is the philatelic term for three or more stamps unsevered and in the same row, horizontal or vertical.

Surcharge.—An overprint (which see) which alters the face value of a stamp, or confirms it in the same or a new currency. The term is loosely used to mean any overprint, but it is desirable that its application be confined to inscriptions affecting the denomination of face-value.

Surface-printed, that is, printed by a process in which the parts of the plate, &c., which produce the coloured portions of the stamp are raised up. See Printing.

Taille douce.—When a design is cut into the substance of the plate it is said to be engraved in taille douce. A familiar example is a visiting-card plate.

Tête-bêche is a French expression signifying the inversion of one stamp of a pair (or more) in relation to the other stamp (or stamps): naturally, the peculiarity disappears on severance, and such varieties must necessarily be in a pair or more.

Toned, as applied to paper, implies a very slight buff tint.

Tresse.See Rosace.

Trials.—These are impressions from die, plate, stone, &c., taken to ascertain if the design be correct, or to assist in the selection of a suitable colour.


Steel Die

Photograph of a flat steel die engraved in taille douce (i.e., with the lines of the design cut into the plate). The stamp is the 50 lepta of Greece, issue of 1901, showing Hermes adapted from the Mercury of Giovanni da Bologna.

Type.—A representative common design, as distinguished from “variety,” which indicates slight deviations therefrom.

Type-set.—Stamps—e.g., the 1862 issue of British Guiana—have sometimes been set up with ordinary printer’s type, as used for books, and the ornamental type-metal designs to be found in a printing establishment.

Typographed.See Surface-printed.

Used abroad.—Prior to certain countries and colonies having their own stamps, British post-offices were established in them, at which British stamps were to be purchased; such stamps, identified by their postmarks as having been so used, are termed “British used abroad.” The stamps of other countries have been similarly “used abroad.”

Variety.—A slight variation from the normal design, or type, which see.

Watermarks.—A thinning of the substance of the paper, in the form of letters, words, or designs, &c., during the manufacture. On the paper being held up to the light, or placed on a dark surface, the designs become more or less visible.

So-called “watermarks” are sometimes produced by impressing a design on the paper after manufacture; this has a somewhat similar effect, though the paper is only pressed, not thinned.

Wove.See Paper.

Wove bâtonné.See Paper.

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