Like all disciplines, interests, and obsessions, philately has plenty of abbreviations and buzz words. In this section I try to explain the ones I use most often on this web site.

Note: I am not a classically trained philatelist. These definitions are my own, and may or may not be accurate. If you think this is going to annoy you, skip to the end for a link to a real glossary.


ATM stands for the German word “Automatenmarke”. An ATM is a variable-value stamp that is dispensed from a vending machine. Such vending machines provide a quick way to get a stamp when you know the postage value that you need, and you want to avoid queues at the Post Office (or post a letter out of hours). ATMs are commonly used in several countries around the world, especially Europe, while other countries have run trials and found them unsatisfactory.

Stamps Germany 2013 ATM 0.01
ATM from Germany

The postage value of an ATM is printed on the stamp at the moment of purchase. You can select from standard postal rates, or choose a custom value if you already have stamps and you want to make up the rate. The design of ATMs stamps is usually limited, and you won’t find the same variety as with ordinary stamps. (Note: My experience is limited to one machine in Germany.)

ATMs are a little different from ordinary stamps, and they have claimed a niche of their own in the collecting world. Consequently, they attract specialist collectors, and make for an interesting collection on their own account. ATMs are also known by different names; you might hear them called Framas or Klussendorfs, after the 2 most common manufacturers of ATM vending machines.

Click here for the Wikipedia entry on variable-value stamps, or if you can read German, here is the German Wikipedia entry on Automatenmarke.


A cachet is an image or design printed on a cover (additional to the stamps and postmarks) to illustrate an event or to compliment the theme of the stamps being used. Along with the stamps themselves, cachets add interest to a cover and attract collectors.


A cancel, or I should probably say “cancellation”, is a particular kind of postmark. Stamps on a cover are cancelled with a cancellation mark to show that they have been used for postage and cannot be used again. Cancels are traditionally applied with an ink stamp, although modern sorting offices with centralised systems use electronic cancellations nowadays: not really as nice.

A cancel shows the date and location of cancellation, which adds a mark of postal history to a stamp. For a short period around the issue of a new commemorative stamp, a commemorative cancel might also be used – a one-off postmark that includes an image or some detail of the theme. This is why covers are interesting, and collecting covers has become a huge sub-category of stamp collecting. Some people collect cancellations as much as they collect stamps. Sometimes though, if a stamp misses a cancel, a postal clerk might cancel the stamp with a stroke of biro or felt-tip pen; officially the stamp is cancelled, but it drives many collectors nuts.

Charity stamp

Germany Charity Stamp
German charity stamp

A charity stamp is issued with a surcharge that is payable over and above the postage rate of the stamp. The customer pays the combined value of the postage rate and the surcharge. The stamp can be used as normal for postage, and the surcharge is donated to a charitable cause.

This German charity stamp (right) shows the postage rate of the stamp – 45 cents (euro) – and the surcharge for charity – 20 cents. It also carries the slogan Für die Jugend, indicating that the surcharge will be donated to charities helping young people. The selvedge carries the standard motto currently used on German charity stamps: Do good, help with stamps.


A cinderella is a label, sticker, or etiquette that looks like a stamp, but isn’t a stamp (and can’t be used as postage). The scope of cinderellas is wide-ranging, and covers promotional or thematic items, among many other classifications. The definition may also include trading stamps (do you remember Green Shield stamps?). Cinderellas are as collectible as stamps. I don’t collect them, but I probably have a few that I have not yet identified. I don’t really know much more than this about cinderellas, but the topic can be a hot one, so I’ll stop here. Click here for a brief intro to cinderellas and explore the site further if you are interested in these items. You could also visit the Cinderlla Stamp Club.

Circular Date Stamp (CDS)

glossary-cdsA circular date stamp is the classic postmark that we all probably recognise. It prints the date that the mark was made, and usually includes the location around the inside edge of the circle. A CDS is often used to cancel a stamp, but it can also be used on other areas of the cover as a simple postmark to indicate transit through a sorting location or that the item has been received at a depot. Transit and receiver stamps are usually struck on the back of the cover.

I have seen CDS defined as “counter date stamp”. Most cancellations applied at a post office counter are circular anyway.


People collect stamps and other things for a million different reasons, and every collection is pretty much unique. At the top of the family tree of stamp collectors though, I see a simple split: “country” collectors and “thematic” collectors.

  • Country collectors collect stamps issued by specific country. Such collectors may collect several countries at once, but their collections are usually defined by country of origin. Being a country collector presents the possibility of actually completing a collection: that is, collecting all stamps issued by one country. If your chosen country no longer exists, well then, your collection is definitive – quite an acheivement! There is flexibility in country collecting (this is a hobby after all). You might decide to collect only specific years, or only up to a specific year, or only from a specific year onwards. It is entirely up to you. My main collection is a country collection: Thailand. I collect every new issue, and I am slowly working back to the beginning in 1883.
  • Thematic collectors collect items that fit a chosen theme. This provides an interesting moment at the start of any collecting career: what are you going to collect? There are billions of stamps around the world depicting millions of themes. You could choose one that fits with your other interests. For example, you might decide to collect stamps featuring fish, or dogs, or cats, or bridges, or architecture in general, or trees, or artwork, or transport, or Paris, or Mount Fuji, or you might collect circular stamps, or orange stamps. For pretty much anything that you can think of that you are interested in, there is a collection waiting to be assembled. Your thematic collection need not be restricted to one country, and most aren’t, although it is entirely possible to make a thematic collection from one country. Many collectors have several themes on the go at once, and will search the world over to find stamps – especially the rare ones – that fit their themes. Broad themes are easy to collect, but your hopes of actually completing a collection of stamps featuring cats are distant. However, completing a thematic collection is by no means the only aim. The act of collecting is reward in itself for many. Narrow, specific themes can be just as interesting. Although the search for candidates may be more challenging, with dedication you could reasonably expect to complete a collection of stamps featuring London Routemaster double-decker buses. And you may learn a few things about a few things in the course of your research.

Within these two branches of collectors, all manner of collecting flourishes. I talk about stamps here, but you can apply these two definitions to covers, cancels, or anything else philatelic.

As my good friend Vera says on the topic of thematic collectors:

A true thematic collector includes all types of philatelic material in the collection: pictorial postmarks, postal stationary, ATMs, aerograms, telegrams, proofs – anything that relates to the theme.

Commemorative stamp

Very broadly, there are two types of postage stamp: commemorative stamps and definitive stamps (see below). A commemorative stamp features a bespoke design or illustration that commemorates an event or theme. They are often issued to commemorate national or global anniversaries or significant events. A commemorative issue might contain a single stamp or a set of several stamps. They are highly collectible and sought after by thematic collectors as well as country collectors. Commemorative stamps are normal stamps, issued by the national postal authority and valid for use as postage.


A cover is an envelope bearing stamps. In this blog, I have four approximate categories of covers:

  • First day covers issued by a national postal operator. These covers are available in post offices on the day of a new issue and thereafter.
  • Thematic covers designed by a philatelic company and available commercially. These covers display bespoke cachets to commemorate an event or a topical interest, usually with stamps that match the theme.  Stamps from previous years may be used as well as new issues.
  • Ordinary postal covers. I use this vague term to describe a cover that is created intentionally as a collectable item, but done so in a non-commercial, amateur way, to be sent postally to another collector in exchange for a similar cover in return. Such covers are also usually thematic. Because this kind of cover is sent postally, they are usually sealed, but when exchanged by collectors they are not intended to be opened. Their only contents might be a piece of card or a folded piece of paper to stiffen the cover, so that it arrives in good shape, or at least flat. Unfortunately, for some people (my beautiful wife), this is where collecting loses what little sense of reality it might have foolishly been clinging to – what’s the point of all that? Well, 90% of my collection of covers consists of ordinary postal covers exchanged in this way, and they are the heart of my collection.
  • Incidental covers. These are letters and parcels sent without the intention of them becoming a collectible item, but the stamps, cancels, and postmarks are found to be an interesting – or perhaps rare – scrap of postal history that cannot simply be discarded, at least not by a collector.

Covers tell their own unique story of a journey from A to B, sometimes via C. One of my favourite covers was sent to me in Thailand from a friend in Croatia; it has a postmark on the back saying “Missent to Tanzania”.

Definitive stamp

Very broadly, there are two types of postage stamp: definitive stamps and commemorative stamps (see above). A definitive stamp bears a standard design that is “definitive” of the country that issued it. Definitive stamps are usually issued in a wide range of denominations to cover any postage amount. Differences in denomination are usually indicated by issuing the same design in different colours. Many countries use an image of the head of state on their definitive stamps, but a country might also issue several designs of definitive stamp to display different national icons or motifs.

Machin 1pPerhaps one of the most famous examples is the profile of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II used on definitive stamps in the United Kingdom. This profile was designed by Albert Machin. It was first used in 1967 and UK definitive stamps have carried this profile ever since. They are known as Machins, and as you might expect, whole collections and lifetimes have been dedicated to these stamps alone.

Definitive stamps do not commemorate a specific event or theme, as commemorative stamps do; they are the everyday stamps that you buy from the post office.


Airmail Sticker THThe word “etiquette” is French for “label”. I have included it in this glossary because you might hear non-French people talking about airmail etiquettes. I call them airmail stickers and was surprised to hear the term being used. But it is common usage among philatelists, so there you go. I think it originates from the French being the first to use dedicated labels on covers to indicate carriage by air service. Before these labels were available, people just wrote “By Airmail” by hand on the cover. Note that the official language of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) is French. Also note that an airmail sticker might be classified as a cinderella (see above).

First Day Cover (FDC)

A first day cover bears a new issue of stamps, which are cancelled on the day of the issue. Most national postal operators offer “official” first day covers as a matter of course for new issues. (Note that postal operators might print thousands of such covers in advance, so the cancellation on the cover that you buy in a post office may not have been struck that very day, but the date of the cancellation will be the first day of issue.) First day covers are highly collectable.

Additionally, there is nothing to stop you from creating your own first day cover on the day of an issue. Some post offices will cancel the stamps on such a cover for you, even if it is for your own collection and you don’t intend to send it. Or you could address it to a friend (or to yourself) and send it through the postal system – a genuine postal first day cover. Some collectors prize covers that have seen the postal system from the inside more than the pre-printed, unposted collectables.


A vending machine stamp. Please see ATM.

International Letter Writing Week

International Letter Writing Week was an idea conceived at a convention of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1957 as an opportunity to promote postal services to the general public. Each year, the week’s events focussed on 9th October, which is the anniversary of the forming of the UPU. In modern times, the UPU has dropped the week-long event in favour of World Post Day on 9th October, and an annual letter writing competition for young people. However, Thailand and Japan still issue a set of commemorative stamps for International Letter Writing Week.


Kiloware packets are packets of used stamps that are sold by weight. Many stamp dealers sell kiloware, and it is common for charities to sell it too, in which case your money is going to a good cause. Kiloware usually contains a lot of “dupes” (duplicates), so you might even buy kiloware, keep the stamps that you want, and then recycle the remainder back to a charity. The packets usually contain common stamps and the chances of finding a rare or valuable stamp in your packet are slim (zero). This is because stamps that are destined for kiloware are “sorted”, and any prize items are removed before the packets are made up. Rather, kiloware is a fun way to kick-start or boost a collection. For a small price, you’ll get a packet of several hundred stamps, and several hours of happy sorting and grading.

In the United States, I think kiloware is called “mixtures”. Possibly because the US still uses imperial measurements.

Meter label

A meter label is used in the same way as a stamp: it is attached to a letter or package as proof of postage. Meter labels are usually printed and applied at the post office counter when you hand over an item that doesn’t already carry postage. Meter labels are cheaper to print and quicker to apply than stamps, which is why they are so prevalent. You are of course free to use stamps instead, but you usually have to buy them at a different counter and apply them yourself.

Meter Label - Thailand PostAs with everything philatelic, meter labels are collectible, especially as some postal authorities decorate meter labels to add interest or a symbol of national identity. For example, Thailand Post prints meter labels featuring a family of elephants, a beautiful animal dearly loved by Thai people and a symbol of the nation. The flag of Siam was once a white elephant on a red background. This symbol is still used in the present day Naval Ensign of Thailand.

Mint stamps and used stamps

Breaking things down into my super-simple definitions again, there are two types of stamps: mint stamps, which are unused, and used stamps, which have been pressed into the service of the postal machine to carry a letter or parcel to its destination. Many collectors collect both types of stamps, but some collect only mint and some collect only used.

The attraction of mint stamps is that they are (usually) undamaged, clean, prime examples of an issue, that look great in a stamp album. A mint stamp is a work of art.

The attraction of used stamps is that they have been through the postal system, collecting the knocks and marks of postal life alongway. A used stamp has acheived its purpose in life and bears the evidence of use.

The condition of a stamp will vary considerably within these two definitions. If you check listings of stamps for sale, you will see codes and abbreviations that attempt to describe the condition of an item. For example, a seller might describe a mint stamp as MNH. This means “mint, never hinged”. Hinges are sometimes used (less so nowadays) to attach stamps to a page in an album, but they can cause damage or discolouration to the gum on the back of a stamp. Buyers want to know this kind of stuff. Bear this in mind if you see a stamp listed as MH. Wikipedia has information about mint stamps here.

For used stamps, you might see listings described as F (fine) or VF (very fine). There are many grades of condition, and on the open market they are quite subjective, but if you are dealing with rare stamps you can go to an authenticator to get a proper grading of a stamp. Click here to see the “grading manual” of the Philatelic Foundation in New York.


The perforation of a stamp is the grid of holes punched in a sheet of stamps that allows you to separate stamps easily and more or less cleanly. Perforations were invented after stamps, and early stamps had to be cut from sheets. Consequently they had a straight edge; today we describe such stamps as imperforate. Imperforate stamps are sometimes still produced, but mainly for display as souvenir sheets, or some other collectible presentation. Note that self-adhesive stamps also do not have a perforation; they are generally die-cut for easy use.

The size of the grid of perforations is not standard between countries or between printers, so the number of perforations a stamp has might be different to another stamp of the same size, but issued by a different country. The “perforation size” can therefore be used to classify and identify stamps. Anyone can measure the perforation size: it is the number of perforations in a distance of 2 cm. I am not an expert on this topic, but it is very important from a technical point of view, so you might like to click here for more information about perforation on Wikipedia.


A PEX is a Philatelic Exhibition. You might see the term most often stuck on the end of an identifier. For example, my home PEX is Thaipex, held in Bangkok on a semi-regular basis (and in 2013 it hosted the World Stamp Exhibition). Among hundreds of PEXs around the world there is also Singpex in Singapore, Westpex in San Francisco, and Rajpex in India. And of course, one PEX to rule them all: Texpex in the USA. I haven’t been able to find a Mexpex, but there is a New Mexpex across the border.

PEXs don’t have to be regional: Birdpex is a popular exhibition held in different countries around the world.

PEXs are great for blowing your monthly budget in one day, filling gaps in your collections, seeing new stamps from countries you never considered before – causing you to launch into yet another collection, marvelling at stamp display competitions that make you realise you know nothing about stamps, and cadging expert knowledge from all the pro stampers.

Presentation Pack

New issues are sometimes offered in a presentation pack. The stamps are usually held in a mount inside the pack, which consists of a card wallet or folder, perhaps inside a plastic or cellophane sleeve. The presentation pack provides details of the origin and design of the stamps. It is a way of offering stamps to collectors in an interesting format, with a protective cover and for easy storage (although, storage of stamps is not a simple task). Presentation packs are often created in limited numbers, increading their value within a collection.


Se-tenant is a word of French origin, meaning “joined together”. It is used in philately to describe two or more stamps that are joined together. But there is a hidden clause: the stamps must be of different designs. Identical stamps in a sheet or block are not se-tenant, even though they are joined together.

Kate and William - NiueSe-tenant stamps occur when, for example, stamps from the same issue but with different designs are printed on a single sheet, or when one overall image is divided between multiple stamps. The “Royal Wedding” issue from the island nation of Niue celebrating the wedding of HRH Prince William and Catherine Middleton is a good example.

Selvedge (or Selvage in the US)

Selvedge is the outisde border around the stamps on a sheet, between the stamps and the edge of the sheet itself. This border is used to print information about the issue, such as issue name and issue date, and often bears the name of the printer. From a technical aspect, printer’s colour bars are also printed on the selvedge for quality control during the printing process (colour bars allow a printer to see at a glance if one of the colours used has not printed properly). For commemorative issues, the selvedge may also be printed with decoration.

If you have a stamp with selvedge attached, the general advice is to leave it there. A stamp can easily be detached from selvedge , but the process doesn’t go back the other way quite so well. A stamp with selvedge therefore is a little bit closer to its original state than a stamp without it, and for collectors, that means it is more interesting.


A stamp which carries a surcharge for charity. Please see Charity stamp.

Socked on the nose (SON)

Glossary Socked on the nose SONSocked on the nose refers to a cancellation applied to the centre of a stamp. Cancellations are often applied half on, half off a stamp, or across multiple stamps. But if the cancel is applied bang in the middle of the stamp, then the stamp has been socked on the nose. As already noted, cancellations often form a collection in their own right, and collectors are very happy to see a SON, especially if the cancel is fully contained within the perforations of the stamp.

I sent this Eurasian Bullfinch (left) to my good stamp friend Vera (posted on her Traveling Birds blog). Great to see it socked on the nose.

For a proper list written by proper experts, here are a few suggestions:

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