Porto Scrisori.

My wife and I watched the 1963 movie Charade for the first time in decades; it’s been called “the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made,” and it holds up pretty well despite a fair amount of silliness — it’s worth seeing just for the Paris setting, especially the scene set in Les Halles (stupidly demolished in 1973). But what I’m posting about is a plot point involving stamps, specifically one that was said to be the rarest in the world; it bore the Cyrillic inscription ПОРТО СКРИСОРИ (i.e., PORTO SKRISORI) and was so primitive and odd-looking I thought perhaps it had been invented for the movie (especially since I, a stamp collector in my youth, had never heard of it). But Google told me it was a real thing, a Moldavian Bull’s Head; it looked just like the first illustration at that Wikipedia article except that the number was 82 instead of 27. (You can read about the philatelic aspects in this post by Frank Moraes; the real “cap de bour” had a face value of 81 paras, not 82, and “Strangely, the 1858 Romanian 81 Parale Blue that was worth the most in the film, is worth the least in reality.”)

The important thing here, of course, is the inscription, which represents the Romanian phrase porto scrisori; scrisori (which has only two syllables — the -i indicates palatalization of the r) is the plural of scrisoare ‘letter,’ and Wikipedia says:

Around this circle, in the interior above the head, are the Romanian Cyrillic letters ПОРТО СКРИСОРИ (PORTO SCRISORI; “letters to be paid for by the recipient”). The use of the word PORTO is a mistake; FRANCO denotes letters where the postage has been paid by the sender, as was the case for letters using these stamps.

I’m not exactly sure how the word PORTO got there (as far as Wiktionary knows, it means ‘port wine’ in Romanian), but there must have been a good reason.


  1. David L. Gold says

    Porto here is Rumanian porto, which the Dicționar explicativ al limbii române (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dic%C8%9Bionarul_explicativ_al_limbii_rom%C3%A2ne) defines as ‘Taxă care se plătește pentru expedierea prin poștă a unei scrisori, a unui colet, a unei sume de bani etc.’, that is, ‘charge for sending a letter, a parcel, a sum of money, etc. by post’. The word is thus the equivalent of the English word postage.

    Spanish, at least in Mexico, has a similar usage. If you take an unstamped lettter or package to the post office to have it properly stamped, you hand it to the clerk and say, Me da un importe or Me da un importe, por favor.

  2. German has Porto as the noun for the postage you pay and frankieren (or freimachen, literally make free) for putting the stamp on the letter (sometimes with a franking machine that inks a stamp on the letter).

    This is from Italian (the language of banking and commerce): franco (di porto) and I can see where the confusion could come from. If something is franco then the postage has been paid and the recipient is free of the cost of postage.

    Incidentally, franco turns up in English in the expression “frank and free”

  3. Thanks to both of you! I wasn’t familiar with that usage.

  4. Jen in Edinburgh says

    You can frank a letter in English – I used to enjoy getting to play with the franking machine in an old job.

    It means that the business marks its own mail instead of buying a stamp for each letter, but I’m not actually sure whether you then pay a set price for each piece of post which reaches the sorting office, or whether you pay a monthly/yearly price to have all your post dealt with.

  5. I would say to the clerk “de” instead of “da”.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Norw. porto n. and frankere. v., of course. More words from German through Danish. The stamp itself is a frimerke.

  7. Also relevant is the franking privilege ‘the right to send pieces of mail free of charge’, which members of the Congress of the United States, for example, enjoy as long as they sign, stamp, or imprint their names where the postage stamp would normally go (https://www.ethics.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/56433779-f93f-4c71-a95f-9e3896b20690/franking.pdf).

    Franko-Couvert and Frankoumschlag are the (now obsolete?) German equivalents of English stamped envelope, which anyone can buy. The envelopes have the stamp preprinted on them. You pay the postage indicated on the stamp plus a fee for the envelope (details on such envelopes in the Kingdom of Saxony here: https://www.rpsl.org.uk/rpsl/Displays/Handouts/DISP_20160505_001.pdf).

    Italian francobollo and Neapolitan franchebbollo, both meaning ‘postage stamp’, are alive and well.

  8. @Jen in Edinburgh: The terminology is different in America. What you described is called “metered mail.” In the old days, a company would buy or tent a “meter,” a device which stamped letters and mailing labels with valid printed postmarks. These were paid for in advance, and the meter kept track of the amount spent, until the user needed to pay to refill it. The same functionality has largely moved to computerized Web applications now.

    “Franking” of letters refers to something different. Entities that are part of the federal government (including, in the most controversial and discussed cases, elected officials) can send franked letters without actually paying anything (since the government ultimately owns the postal service). The old British equivalent was letters sent “On Her Majesty’s Service.”

    I remember in Mansfield Park, the protagonist Fanny is surprised to learn from her cousin Edmund that, as a member of the family, she can get her letters franked by her uncle, rather than writing to her parents and siblings with postage due on delivery. As a reader, I mostly wondered how it could have worked logistically if British postmen had to be constantly collecting farthings when they delivered letters. (I have no idea what the actual costs involved were, and whenever financial issues are discussed in Mansfield Park, they don’t come anywhere close to adding up. However, I assume that for a local landowner, not being able to afford to frank the correspondence of your live-in relations would have been an intolerable embarrassment.)

  9. “I would say to the clerk “de” instead of “da”

    If you say “de”, you are using an imperative form. In that case, it would have to be spelled “dé” and the indirect-object pronoun would have to be an enclitic: ¡Déme un importe!

    But that would be brusque and therefore impolite.

    In all latter-day Spanish topolects, the present indicative is used to make polite requests. For example, in a restaurant, “me trae un vaso de agua ‘I’d like a glass of water’ or “me trae un vaso de agua, por favor” ‘I’d like a glass of water, please’.

    If one is on very friendly terms with the addressee, one can use the second- person form, as in “Mamá, me traes un vaso de agua.”

    Otherwise, the third-person is appropriate, as above (trae).

  10. Back in the day, you could buy (at least in Israel) a sheet of thin paper with flaps, with a preprinted airmail stamp, which was to be folded into an envelope shape. You would write on the blank side (and maybe on the back of what would become the envelope), address it, fold it and glue the flaps, and mail essentially an empty envelope written on the inside, for much less than a regular airmail letter. What are those things called?

    Ed. I just remembered. Aerograms.

  11. A short way to translate the Romanian dictionary definition of porto scrisori would be ‘letters carrying charge’. Obviously related to a purta ‘to carry’, but not regularly derived from it.

  12. DLG: Thanks. In my exposure to (Latin American) Spanish I have not encountered this construction.

  13. I happened to go to the post office a while ago, and there was a young guy working the counter, so I asked him if he knew what an aerogram was. Drew a complete blank.

    The US ceased production of aerograms in 2006 or so. They still have them in Australia, apparently.

    It used to be very exciting when one arrived.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I miss aerograms too, and second the “exciting.”

    Most of those we got as children were from my aunt in Pakistan.

    More recently, they were a good choice for communicating with Africa, as being significantly more likely to actually arrive at their destination than letters in regular envelopes.

  15. @Y. “….Latin American) Spanish I have not encountered this construction”

    Listen for it now in Western Hemispheric Spanish and you will probably hear it. This is an example from a macabre Mexican story by a contemporary writer:

    “Un esqueleto llega a un bar y dice: ‘Mozo me trae un vaso de vino y un trapo para limpiar el piso.’”

    = A skeleton walks into a bar and says, “Waiter, a glass of wine and a rag to clean up the floor if you please.”


  16. @ Y. “What are those things called?”

    In Israeli Hebrew, it’s called an

    איגרת אוויר ~ אגרת אויר

    For American English I know only air-letter sheet and for British English, aerogramme, but others have different experiences.

    @David E.

    More recently, they were a good choice for communicating with Africa, as being significantly more likely to actually arrive at their destination than letters in regular envelopes.

    Probably because would-be thieves thought that letters were likelier than aerogrammes to contain valuables.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Quite so. It’s a lot easier to tell that aerograms don’t contain valuables (without actually, like, opening them.)

    [Answering for a friend]

  18. It may have been from aerograms that I learned as a boy, many decades ago, the treble equivalence:


    In hindsight, fairly late in the age when you couldn’t just act as if the whole world knew English as the universal L2 …

  19. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @DLG, Y:

    I’ve always parsed that construction as a question, in which the indicative is more informal and less polite than the conditional. Identically, in English I wouldn’t ask a waiter “Bring me a glass of water, please” but rather “Could you please bring me a glass of water?” I wouldn’t as naturally ask “Can you please …” or “Would you please …” but neither sounds wrong to my non-native ear.

    While my intuition about idiomatic Spanish is rather fallible, I reckon framing the indicative as a question is strictly required for politeness. “Ahora Usted me trae un vaso de agua” does not belong to either my active or my passive usage, and I reckon that isn’t because it’s ungrammatical but because it’s unthinkably rude, way beyond “Tráigame …”

  20. @DLG:
    I remembered איגרת אויר right after postng my comment, which led me to “aerogram”. My grandparents wrote and received them a lot, because they had many relatives overseas.

    I heard the joke in English, too, as “gimme a beer and a mop.”

    I looked in Butt and Benjamin’s New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish (5th ed.) They distinguish between the brusque use of the present indicative (“Si tienes dinero, me lo das”) and the polite one, phrased as a question (“¿Me pone con el 261-84-50 (por favor)?”, “¿Me pasas el agua (por favor)?”), agreeing with Giacomo Ponzetto’s intuition. Phrased this way, I think I have heard or even used this, after all.

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    Just to add, the English version without interrogative intonation, or with doubled/exaggerated stress on the word “please” is an urgent command, conveying a sense of exasperation.

  22. Kate Bunting says

    Sir Thomas Bertram (Mansfield Park) was probably an MP. Getting an MP or peer to frank your letter is quite often mentioned in fiction with an early 19th century setting; the (much-abused) privilege ended with the introduction of postage stamps in 1840. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_frank

  23. “Pone” and “pasas” in the second and third examples are just as much present-tense indicative verbs as “das” is.

    Softened imperatives with the present indicative are spoken with affirmative, exclamatory, and interrogative intonations in Spanish, the choice depending on such variables as the identity of the sender and the receiver of the message, the age and sex of each of them, the ease with which the action desired by the sender can be carried out by the receiver, the perceived reasonableness of the request, and so on.

    For example, me da un importe with affirmative intonation is in no way brusque in a post office because affixing the right postage is something the clerks easily and readily do as part of their job, so that no special politeness is needed. By contrast, a guest at a dinner party might well say to another guest ¿me pasas el agua? (even if the receiver of the message is able to pass the water to the sender as easily as the clerk can affix the postage to the envelope or package in the post office) because at such gatherings an extra measure of politeness would be expected.

    Or, to take another example, si tienes dinero, me lo das is not in and of itself brusque: it is, if the sender is a highway robber and the receiver is the robber’s victim, and it is not, if one significant other who needs some money is speaking to the other significant other and they are the happiest couple imaginable. The brusqueness or non-brusqueness of the utterance thus comes not from the utterance or the mood and tense of the verb butt from the contex of the utterance.

    Reference grammars can give only hints regarding pragmatics. The more laconic they are, the likelier they are to oversimplify.

  24. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    @DLG: Once again, I’m neither a linguist nor a native speaker of Spanish, while I appreciate you may be either, or both. Nonetheless, as a non-native who’s lived in Spain for over a decade, I’d caution against the unintended consequences of excessively refined descriptivism.

    You may have the flawless Spanish fluency to tell when ordering people around in the affirmative or even exclamatory present indicative is appropriate. Nonetheless, those occasions must be highly exceptional, at least in Spain.

    I cannot think of any circumstances in which the interrogative version is inappropriately formal. That makes it a safe and frequently prescriptive choice. Conversely, I would advise against wielding an exclamatory present indicative without a superior knowledge of contextual nuances. I still fail to see any situation in which that would be better (friendlier, more polite, etc) than the imperative — which, of course, is itself well within the bounds of usage among friends and family.

  25. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    As someone trying to learn Spanish, I find it interesting that maybe there would be occasions where I could dispense with the interrogative intonation in me trae el agua aso. But I don’t plan on testing it out, firstly because the pragmatics seem hard to learn, and secondly because even the interrogative version is uncomfortably far from my acculturated habits as a native of Denmark.

    Kommer du med en menu? is possible in a Danish restaurant setting but it has a slight passive-agressive import, implying that you feel the waiter has been longer in coming than you were hoping for. Jeg vil gerne se menuen is the least marked way of asking for it. Kommer du med noget vand? is what you say when your drinks arrive and there’s no water, but it’s also sort of OK if you forgot to ask for it. It’s better if you soften it to kommer du ikke med noget vand?.

  26. Stu Clayton says

    excessively refined descriptivism

    Enableism ! Description with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. .

  27. Kommer du med en menu? is possible in a Danish restaurant setting but it has a slight passive-aggressive import, implying that you feel the waiter has been longer in coming than you were hoping for.

    Can I get the menu please? is what I would say (note: not what “an American” would say). Note that I don’t care whether the person I’m addressing is the one who brings the menu or not, so an personal construction would be over the top. Google Translate doesn’t understand this form at all: Do you come with a menu?

    Jeg vil gerne se menuen is the least marked way of asking for it.

    Can I get the menu?, without please. GT makes it I would like to see the menu, which is too emphatic for me to use; oddly, adding please here softens it.

    Kommer du med noget vand? is what you say when your drinks arrive and there’s no water, but it’s also sort of OK if you forgot to ask for it.

    Can I/we get some water? works for me in either circumstance. GT: Will you bring some water? Again, I don’t care who brings it. There was a transition for NYC restaurants about 30 years ago from always bringing water to bringing it only on request.

    It’s better if you soften it to kommer du ikke med noget vand?.

    Changing Can I to Could I covers that. GT says Don’t you bring any water? which is outright sarcastic, and Can’t you is even worse: what’s the matter, your plumbing is broken?

  28. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Poor GT. Ikke is a negator, and it’s role in questions is not compositional. In some cases you want the question to correspond to the unexpected answer: Kommer han? implies that you didn’t expect him to come, or genuinely didn’t know what to expect, kommer han ikke? implies that you did so expect. (That’s more or less as in English).

    In other cases, it’s more a question of licensing: Kommer du ikke med noget vand? allows the waiter to answer something like ‘No, you have to order it from the menu’ without being impolite, which the non-negated version doesn’t. (This is in no way logical and I now have a headache). Danish excels in non-intuitive particle use, probably because German. Må jeg ikke nok? ~ ‘Can I do it, pretty please?’.

  29. Benjamin Franklin was the Postmaster for America first under the Crown until 1774, when he was discharged for being too sympathetic with the colonists. He was reappointed by the Congress to the same role, but changed his franking stamp from



    B. FREE

  30. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Cute. Also I just found myself texting this to an old friend because she wasn’t going to be at home when I had the opportunity to admire her latest project: Så sender du bare et billede når det er færdigt.. Very much an affirmative affirmative as polite command, no room for refusal. But I still affirm that I wouldn’t do that in a restaurant setting. (bare ~ ‘just’ here actually carries mild reproof, like ‘Be aware that I’m letting you off the hook easy, you only have to send a picture’).

  31. David Marjanović says

    “So you just send the picture now that it’s ready”?

  32. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    No “now”. More like ‘You just send a picture when you finish [and then it’s OK].’

  33. how it could have worked logistically if British postmen had to be constantly collecting farthings when they delivered letters

    the everyday money-handling involved in C.O.D. mail seems related to post offices’ banking functions, which have in the u.s. been mostly stripped from the postal service (apart from the sale of money orders), though there are currently noble efforts to re-establish them.

    but in practice there’s a lot of local flexibility and variation. i don’t know if it’s still true, but on rural routes in vermont you used to be able to leave money for postage in your mailbox if you ran out of stamps.

  34. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I never used the service myself, but rural postmen used to be able to cash postal money orders as well as receive payment for COD packages. I think it was kept up much longer in Sweden where the nearest market town and bank office can be very far away indeed, but the post got to everybody every day. (All now privatized, of course, and the universal service requirements of the state monopolies traded away by right-of-center governments).

    But one single instance of market mechanisms actually working struck me today: The (privatized) Swedish Railroads (Svenska Järnvägar, SJ [‘es.ji]) used to be totally uninterested in establishing border-crossing services (except Stockholm-Oslo, but maybe that was the Norwegians forcing them) or even selling tickets — you used to have to book through DB. But now an operating company cutely named as Snälltåget (compositionally ‘the well-behaved train,’ but of course a pun on die Schnellzug) is arranging a weekly night service to the Alps, with three stops in Denmark even! (And SJ have grudgingly established a direct line Stockholm-Copenhagen as well).

    (I don’t know how they get through Denmark, the lines through Jutland are still not electrified [fie!] and there’s a stop in Kolding).

  35. David Marjanović says

    you used to have to book through DB.



    Der. Verb roots as nouns are masculine, except exceptions (außer halt die Ausnahmen).

  36. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    My relationship with German noun gender is purely impressionistic. Clearly die sounded better to me yesterday. (I’ve been in Germany often enough that it’s often the correct gender that sounds correct to me, because exposure, but as long as I can order stuff by pointing it’s OK). I don’t mind marking myself as a tourist, of course.

    (The concept of a Danish-speaking tourist in Denmark does not exist, so I don’t know to what extent that bothers actual Germans).

  37. January First-of-May says

    I don’t know how they get through Denmark, the lines through Jutland are still not electrified [fie!] and there’s a stop in Kolding

    I stayed in the town of Sudislavl, Kostroma Oblast several times when my brother went to a math camp there (I also went to that camp myself, in 2005, but don’t remember much about how I got there).

    As of 2021, two trains per day, in each direction, stopped at the Sudislavl train station (some 7 km from the actual town).
    One of them was the local suburban service, Kostroma-Galich; the usual name for a suburban train in Russia is elektrichka “the electric one”, which this one was (also) known as – but technically was not, because the line was (and, AFAIK, still is) not electrified.

    The other train, which went eastward around 7am and westward around 11pm, was Moscow-Vladivostok.

    (In practice, unless you went straight from Moscow, it was usually more convenient to take a bus.)

  38. The (privatized) Swedish Railroads (Svenska Järnvägar, SJ [‘es.ji]) used to be totally uninterested in establishing border-crossing services

    I crossed from Trondheim to mid-Sweden ~1975 – presumably before privatization. That was ‘Inter-railing’ for a month, which has always seemed an astonishingly good deal for the yoof.

    (Writing at over 200 km/hr from Taiwan rail’s superb HSR service. It’s a PPP; but to completely privatise rail? Braindead.)

  39. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Interrail is still a brilliant thing, and these days everybody can use it. You even get 10 percent off if you’re over 60, and you can buy down to three days of travel within a calendar month which will almost always be cheaper than a return ticket. (You need to pay separately for seat reservations. and those can be substantial for things like the Eurostar and sleeper beds. But still much less than a full price ticket. Just for a single on the night train from Berlin to Linz this summer, a reservation plus three days of first class Interrail was cheaper than the regular ticket).

    @AntC: My experience with SJ dates from the late noughts; I think they had problems adapting from a soviet-style monopoly where as long as there were trains running it didn’t matter if those were the trains people needed, to realizing that then somebody else would do it.

    Various Swedish governments have been so eager to implement their market ideology (and get as much cash as possible from selling off assets) that they have removed any public service requirements that the US capital funds wanted them to. Even though the Danish railways now has a state owned infrastructure company and a handful of operating companies, I think the state is still the majority shareholder in the old State Railroad Company (DSB) that runs most of the services.

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