What Does ‘Re:’ Stand For?

Today one of my students asked me what “re:” stood for in the subject lines of e-mails (and letters).   I thought I’d write the answer here, too, since many people take it to mean something else.

“Re:” is what is written in the subject line of e-mails (and in letters) to tell the receiver what the topic of the message is. For example: ‘Re: Your article’. Most people take this “re:” to stand for ‘reference’ or ‘regarding’. The reason for this could be that both these words start with the letters ‘re’, and what follows these letters is actually referring to the topic of the message. However, this is a misconception. What “re” actually stands for is the Latin word “res”. “Re” is the ablative form of the noun “res”, which means ‘thing’ or ‘affair’. Therefore, “re” means ‘about the thing’ or ‘about the affair’.

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15 Responses

  1. Well, thank you for this! I always thought “re:” stood for “regarding,” too. Hm!

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  2. Very cool! I didn’t know that! Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Thank you, Jody and ‘Paper Rats’. Few people know this… it’s understandable considering “regarding” starts with “re”.

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  4. So then what does r.e. stand for? For example: (r.e. millage tax increases)?

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  5. For emails, I do not believe this is correct. In old paper “Memorandums” Re: was understood to mean “Regarding.” However, in emails, this is replaced by “Subject:”. Re: appears when replying to a message, and means “Reply To:”

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  6. Hi, stumbled across this post after I Googled the question myself out of curiosity.

    I, too, was under the impression that it was short for “regarding” and it seems unlikely to me that it would be a shortened form or “res”, since that word is already only three letters. Do you have a source for where you got the Latin explanation?

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  7. This is partially correct. While the basic “re” is shortened from “res” meaning thing or affair. This may be the “root” of the word, or where it came from, but it is not how it is interpreted today, or how we ended up with its current usage.

    Some argue that “re” was also shortened from its more formal/legal field usage “in re”. “in re” meaning in reguard to, or what the matter is about.

    re : “with reference to,” 1707, from L. in re “in the matter of,” ablative case of res “matter, thing.” Its use in English is execrated by Fowler in three different sections of “Modern English Usage.”

    My Source: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=re
    There are sources listed on the bottom of the page if you wish an in-depth look.

    People often mistakenly use or quote wikipedia as fact. Wikipedia is often correct, but not always correct.

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  8. Re,stand for what?

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  9. Maybe you can clarify:

    You mention that we misconceive, “re” as regarding to “the topic of the message” Regardless of what “re” stands for. Is the message not the same, which is to tell the reader/receiver, the topic of the message?
    Thank you

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  10. thewritecorner, while I appreciate the clarification, substantively, I don’t see any difference from what you wrote and the misconception of “regarding.” In legal parlance, “RE:” equates to “regarding” or “in reference to/of.” In light of the evolution of “RE,” as it is widely used, rightly or wrongly, who cares? If there is no confusion, er, regarding RE, then its etymology adds nothing to the matter RE this issue.

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  11. Thank you to my readers above who have expressed their opinions regarding my post. True, there are different interpretations to the word “re” and I guess they are all correct in their own ways.
    MIM and Grrr, you are right – whatever the source of “re”, they all convey the same message.

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