What does RSVP mean?

by | Feb 23, 2010 08:00 PM ET

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Marshall Brain

Hi, I'm Marshall Brain with today's question, what does RSVP mean? RSVP stands for a French phrase, répondez s'il vous plaît, which means please reply. The person sending the invitation would like you to tell him or her whether you accept or decline the invitation. That is, will you be coming to the event or not? Etiquette rules followed in most Western cultures require that, if you receive a formal written invitation, you should reply promptly, perhaps that same day.

For hosts who are planning a dinner party, a wedding, or a reception, this is important from their point of view because they need to know how many people to count on and how much food to buy. More important though, is the simple courtesy of responding to someone who was nice enough to invite you, even if it's to say that you regret that you won't be able to attend. Many wedding invitations come with a response card that you can mail back right away. Other written invitations will carry the host's telephone number so you can call with your reply, although under strict etiquette rules a written invitation requires a written reply.

Nowadays, invitations often carry a regrets only notation at the end. That means that the host will count you your being there unless you tell him or her otherwise. Some people even use RSVP as a verb, as in, "Have you RSVP'd to that invitation yet?" You might wonder why we use the initials of a French phrase in an invitation that's written in English. You can say that the French invented etiquette, although that would be a simplification because there have always been rules to follow in civilization. In fact, an Italian diplomat wrote the first book about proper behavior among nobility in the 16th century.

Many of the practices of Western etiquettes, however, came from the French court of King Louis XIV in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. At Versailles, his palace, Louis XIV had rules for court behavior written on what French referred to as tickets - get it? Tickets - etiquette. The tickets either were signs posted at Versailles or were the invitation issued to court events with the rules of behavior printed on the back. Experts give different versions of the origin, and French was the language of refinement and high society through the 19th century in the United States.

Judith Martin, the author of etiquette books and a syndicated newspaper columnist known as Miss Manners thinks that RSVP came about as a polite way of reminding people of something that they should already know. If you receive an invitation, you should reply.

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