4

re1

Pronunciation: /riː/ /reɪ/

PREPOSITION

  1. In the matter of (used typically as the first word in the heading of an official document or to introduce a reference in a formal letter):
    ‘re: invoice 87’

    1.1 About; concerning:
    ‘I saw the deputy head re the incident’

Seen above is the Oxford Dictionaries entry for re, which Google displays as the result of a search for what does re stand for.

Certainly this is the definition, but a few questions:

  1. How did this come about? Oxford Dictionaries claims the origin is from the Latin word "res" meaning "thing", but "thing" hardly seems relevant to a word meaning "regarding".

Origin
Latin, ablative of res 'thing'.

  1. How should it be written - "re", "re:", "RE", "RE:", "Re", "Re:" or something else?

  2. How is it pronounced - "ree", "ray" or something else?

  • 1
    FYI, Google Search is quoting the ODE or NOAD, the same dictionaries available at OxfordDictionaries.com. Google doesn't have its own team of lexicographers. – snailboat Jul 13 '16 at 4:47
  • @snailplane Yes. I just felt this presented the information in a better way for a screenshot. – Dog Lover Jul 13 '16 at 4:49
  • 1
    Relevant post on Latin SE: Does the “re” in emails have an ancient origin? – sumelic Jul 13 '16 at 8:12
  • I have always understood it to be a shortening of ref.:; which, in turn is a shortening of reference:; which, in turn, is a shortening of "With reference to: [matter XYZ]. But I have not looked for any authorities to substantiate that. OTOH, the comment above cross-referencing a post on Latin SE suggests I may be completely wrong! – TrevorD Jul 13 '16 at 11:48
  • @sumelic Feel free :) I just had limited time available when I asked the question. – Dog Lover Jul 13 '16 at 22:22
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According to the OED Online, "re" is an English preposition arising from a Latin borrowing,1 meaning

Originally: in the matter of, referring to; in re (see in prep.2 23d). Subsequently: about, concerning.

1707 T. Hearne Remarks & Coll. 17 May (O.H.S.) II. 14 Amused by Charlett's trick re Tacitus.

("re, prep.". OED Online. June 2016. Oxford University Press.)2

Thus re has been a word since ancient Roman times (as your own definition shows), and has been in use in English since at least the early 18th century.

A related question might be:

Why do we use re the way we do, and where did the perception that it is an abbreviation originate?

The OED notes that

The use as a preposition was formerly much criticized in usage guides. See e.g. H. W. Fowler Mod. Eng. Usage (1926) 255/2, and compare quot. 1935, which parodies this use.

The form re. probably results from reanalysis as showing an abbreviation for regarding prep.

So our current usage dates from at least the early part of the 20th century, and the abbreviation version probably arose from a folk etymology.

A fuller explanation might be hinted at in the reference in the definition to in re. This is a legal Latin term, where it's used to refer to cases that don't have two sides:

Jones v. Smith = Jones and Smith are fighting it out in court.

In re Jones = the court is doing something about Jones, but there's only one side (e.g. an adoption).

By extension, it also has long been used in the legal profession when referring to any case in legal memos, so

In re Jones v. Smith = about the Jones against Smith case

And by further extension, to refer to the subject matter of a memo in general:

In re(:) overdue payment

This memo usage also appears in business; I suspect that the business usage arose from the legal usage, but haven't been able to confirm that. Latin has been a language of English law for so long that, while there are numerous lists of legal Latin phrases on the web, the only discussions I'm finding of the history of this use are in places like a "For Dummies" website and some Quora discussions. I assume that Latin has been a staple of English courts since the Romans occupied Britain, however, and it's plausible that business folks would have needed to be familiar with common legal terms.

According to the OED Online, the confusion of the Latin preposition "in with the English preposition "in" is of long-standing, as evidenced by the fact that in some early examples it is "found printed in roman type, while the rest of the phrase [whatever The Latin phrase may be] is in italics." ("in, prep.2". OED Online. June 2016. Oxford University Press.)

With an ambiguous "in" attached to such a short little word as re, and meaning in context "in regard to" or "in reference to", it's not surprising that the Latin phrase in re or just re has frequently been taken to be an abbreviation of an English phrase.

Indeed, at this stage, I believe "Re:" actually is an English abbreviation, in the sense that many (most?) writers of English who use it at the top of a memo or email mean it to stand in for some English word, whether "regarding" or "referencing".

However, its use as a standalone word is also well-established and "correct".


  1. From the OED definition cited above: "Etymology: < classical Latin , ablative of rēs thing, affair (see res n.1)."

  2. As "re" is in the ablative case, I think the translation would be something like "from (because of) the thing" (some Latin scholar please confirm or correct).

  • I agree with Dan Bron. Best answer so far. Thank you. – Dog Lover Jul 13 '16 at 22:20
-2

(1)As the Google definition says, it means "in the matter of", or in other words "about this thing". (2)It's often written with a colon following. (3)According to my dictionary it's pronounced "ree".

  • 1
    This does not answer the Q. The Q. is "How did “RE:” as a “word” come about?" Not "What does it mean?" – TrevorD Jul 13 '16 at 11:43

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