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I have two words that I think mean the same thing:

切手 - きって - stamp (postage)/merchandise certificate

郵券 - ゆうけん - postage stamp

When I look at some sample sentences, the first one is used for both stamp and check. While the second one has no sample sentences but the Kanji makes a lot more sense. 郵券 - "Mail Ticket"; 切手 - "cut hand"

So how would I use both? I feel that 切手 would be used to describe stamps of any kind while 郵券 can only be used for postage stamps. Am I on the right track?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Postage stamps are usually called 切手. Strictly speaking, 切手 can refer to other kinds of certificates of payment, and postage stamps are more formally called 郵便切手, but 切手 almost always refer to postage stamps.

I had never heard of the word 郵券, and judging from a quick search on the web, I think that this word is used almost only in the legal community.

Answering to your question in the comment: What is the etymology of the word 切手?

According to 語源由来辞典, a website explaining the etymology of various Japanese words, 切手 was originally an abbreviation for 切符手形, where both 切符 and 手形 means certificates of payment. 切符 literally means something like “paper to cut” (imagine a train ticket) and 手形 literally means “shape of hand” (because handprint was used as a signature). In the modern Japanese, 切符 means ticket and 手形 means either handprint or specific kinds of security.

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So why does the kanji for this translate to "cut hand"? In most cases, you can connect the conceptual ideas the kanji are tying to convey, but this makes no sense. I wish I had a way to research the etymology of this word. – Doltknuckle Jun 9 '12 at 1:04
@Doltknuckle: I added a rough answer to your additional question. – Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 9 '12 at 1:23
I wish I had a wit to come up with a funny, fictional story connecting postage stamps with cutting a hand…. – Tsuyoshi Ito Jun 9 '12 at 1:29
That makes quite a bit of sense when you realize it's an abbreviation. – Doltknuckle Jun 9 '12 at 15:17

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