Saturday, April 26, 2008

What Do Taxes Have to Do With Philately?

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the term philately, pronounced fil-at'-uh-lee), as "the collection and study of postage and imprinted stamps." This definition is much richer than the common description stamp collecting, since philately represents more than just stamps; it includes postcards, postmarks, covers, and all areas related to postage and the delivery of postal items.

So how did the term come about?

In 1864, French collector Georges Herpin, writing in the November 15, 1864, publication Le Collectionneur de Timbres-poste ("The Collector of Postage Stamps") suggested the French word philatelie, which has been anglicized as philately. The word caught on and has become the standardized term.

How did Herpin come up with the word? It was based on three Greek root words, philo, a, and telos.

The Greek root philos refers to platonic love. We see this root used in words like audiophile (lover of sound) or Francophile (lover of France).

The second Greek root word is represented by the prefix a, which means not. For example, the word atheist means one who is not a theist (i.e., an atheist is not a believer in God).

The final Greek root word, telos means tax or charge. Our common word toll, which is synonymous with a levied tax, derives from a variation of this root.

Taken together, the three Greek roots mean one who loves things that are not taxed. So how did this come to represent our hobby? Originally, letters were sent through the mail and the postage was paid by the recipient, which was loosely parallel to a tax. With the use of stamps, the letters arrived "tax free", so to speak, so Herpin coined the French term philatelie to represent the love for the untaxed things.

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