Le cul entre les deux chaises

An American Spaniard in France or: How I Learned to Make an Ass of Myself in Three Cultures

Word Mystery: stamp / timbre / sello / francobollo


Word mysteries are where words in languages that I know don’t correspond to each other at all despite those languages often sharing lexical histories. These words are both mystifying (why are they different?) and annoying (why must you be different?!).

The only mail-related picture I have. (NYC, 2007)

The only mail-related picture I have. (NYC, 2007)

I recently stood in line for over ten minutes late at night at the very busy post office on Rue du Louvre to send my brother a postcard. When it was finally my turn, the harried postal worker barely looked at me and asked what I wanted. I requested a stamp for a card to the US and put the card on the counter in anticipation of its receipt. I had written my brother’s address on it, but no name, and my message was a simple question mark, written boldly with a Sharpie on a lovely hard stock card with a Voltaire quote on the front.

“Urgent or regular?” the guy asked, his eyes slowly coming to rest on the card. His eyebrows registered interest and he looked up.

“As you can see, the message is not urgent,” I said cheerfully because I felt that, at this late hour, I might have made this guy’s day. “Urgent, no,” he whispered across to me, “but mysterious, yes.” His curiosity was peaked and since I like to play along with these kinds of silly exchanges, I told him that the message was certainly mysterious but that the secret could still travel regular mail.

EN → stamp —  a small adhesive piece of paper stuck to something to show that an amount of money has been paid, in particular a postage stamp. ORIGIN Middle English by way of German stampfen [to stamp with the foot] and Old French estamper [to stamp].

ES → sello — Trozo pequeño de papel, con timbre oficial de figuras o signos grabados, que se pega a ciertos documentos para darles valor y eficacia. [Small piece of paper with official images or seal which is affixed to certain documents to give them value and make them valid.] ORIGIN Latin sigillum [embossed figure, relief, seal].

FR → timbre — Petite vignette adhésive servant à affranchir les lettres et les paquets que l’on envoie par la poste. [Small adhesive label used to mark letters and packages sent through the mail as paid .] ORIGIN Latin tympanum [drum].

IT → francobollo — Bollo o segno, consistente in un pezzetto di carta con l’effige del prinicipe o altra insegna, che si applica sulle lettere, che si spediscono per la posta, per render frànco, ossia libero da spesa, chi le riceve. [Stamp or mark, consisting of a piece of paper with the image of the Prince or other insignia, which is applied to letters sent through the mail, to indicate that the item is free of cost to the recipient.] ORIGIN frànco [free] + bollo [stamp, seal]

I left out a part in the French origin story where “drum” evolved to refer to a bell and then to the part of the hammer that strikes a bell. It’s this last step that informs the modern timbre since the hammer then became the handheld stamps used to seal envelopes with wax, leading logically to the modern stamp.

Italy wins today’s Word Mystery.

Author: le cul en rows

I'm an American Spaniard, living in France. I like to tell stories.

5 thoughts on “Word Mystery: stamp / timbre / sello / francobollo

  1. Bonjour! That was amusing, and informative, as indeed are many other of your insights. I think this man in the post office will be forever intrigued by this woman of mystery. I think people who do try to engage with passing strangers as well as those that they already know will have more fulfilling days than those who remain aloof. (Your twin tomatoes story is another illustration of this). I have been meaning to ask, what is the main background picture on your blog? Cheers

    • Thanks for everything you said! I really enjoy changing up regular interactions with total strangers as I think it makes everyone’s day a little more fun.

      My blog header is from one of the buildings inside the Château de Vincennes, just to the east of Paris. You can read more about the place in a couple of the “liked” posts on my sidebar right now.

  2. Well, they definitely aren’t free seals today… How drum became postage stamp is beyond me… Even if there is a connection, I still have to shake my head a little.

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