Since the days of Emily Post it’s been widely known that a prompt reply to an invitation’s RSVP is common courtesy. Whilst many of us are accustomed to seeing RSVP written elegantly on invitations, a surprisingly high amount of us (including me before writing this article!) have no idea what it stands for. What does RSVP mean?
What does RSVP stand for?
RSVP is an acronym for the French request:
This literally translates to “reply please”.
As a side point, people who ask to “please RSVP” are effectively saying “please reply please”, which isn’t dissimilar to the tongue in cheek “department of redundancy department”.
Why do we say RSVP in abbreviated French? Why don’t we just say “reply please” in English?
Much of etiquette was born out of French culture. In fact even the word “etiquette” is a French word that arose in the 1700s from the original French term “estiquette” which literally means tickets. This alludes to the custom in the French court of Louis XIV, where they had small tickets, or cards, which were inscribed with instructions of proper, polite behaviour at court.
Ever since William of Normandy became King of England in 1066, and French influences permeated British high society, the French language has been associated with aristocracy. It is likely that this habit of writing RSVP arose in high society from the days where occasional French words and sayings were often sprinkled in amongst flowing English. In fact this habit of adding smatterings of French into everyday speech is likely to have led to the phrase “Pardon my French” when non-French speakers were around. The tendency to use French in high society lasted well into the 19th century in the UK and the USA, with some still using French to appear refined and lofty even today. If you’ve ever watched the US sitcom Frasier, you’ll know the type! So perhaps it isn’t too surprising that French phrases like RSVP have survived to this day.
A modern twist on the traditional RSVP is to write “RSVP, regrets only” on invitations, so that rather than everyone replying back, you only have to reply if you’re not coming. This has evolved on some invitations to simply “Regrets only”, without the RSVP. Who knows, maybe in a few centuries RSVP will be phased out completely!
Why do people ask others to send RSVPs anyway?
There are two main reasons really:
1.) To enable to host to prepare enough seats, food, drink and space for everyone, in good time. This is particularly important where there may be a case of hundreds of guests not showing up, and preparing for their arrival would be wasteful.
2.) Not replying to an invitation is the equivalent of ignoring someone when they speak to you. It’s always respectful to acknowledge an invitation, whether you are replying that you can come or not. Although the old-fashioned polite way to RSVP is by letter, doing it by phone or other means is perfectly acceptable these days too.
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