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Philately is the term for stamp collecting, yet the Greek roots of the word literally mean “lovers of tax freedom.”
There’s an interesting contrast between the image of a bespectacled stamp collector and a revolutionary in the streets, flaming torch in hand, demanding the overthrow of the tax hungry government.
The phil- in philately is the same as in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, or in audiophile a lover of high end stereo equipment.
The second half of the word philately comes from the Greek ateleia meaning “tax exemption.”
The word philately was invented by a French stamp collector named George Herpin and proposed in a French stamp collecting magazine in 1864.
According to an 1876 edition of the magazine Philatelist, timbromania was the earlier word that Herpin was attempting to oust.
Timbromania means “stamp madness” and it certainly lends a less attractive image to its practitioners than does “lover of tax freedom.”
Timbrophily and Timbrology were also suggested but philately seems to have licked its completion and stuck with us.
It only took a year before this French invention crossed the English Channel—no doubt on a mail ship—to show up as an English word in 1865.
Only one question remains and that is why would stamp collectors consider themselves lovers of tax freedom?
The reason is that there are two ways to have a piece of postal mail delivered. One involves having the recipient pay a COD charge; that’s “cash on delivery.” While the charge isn’t strictly a tax, the alternative is (from the recipient’s point of view) tax free.
The fact that a letter has a stamp on it says to the carrier that the sender has already paid the freight and the receiver can have it without charge.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.