Despite being an abbreviation for a French phrase, RSVP, has fallen out of fashion in France, considered old-fashioned— but I didn’t know that when I first moved to France. Here’s everything you need to know about RSVP, its meaning in English and French, its origins, how to use it and more. Plus, how I learned the hard way that French people don’t know what RSVP means if they see it on invitations.
What’s the meaning of RSVP in English and French?
Like so many English words, RSVP is a French word adopted into the English language.
The RSVP abbreviation stands for “Répondez, S’il Vous Plaît,” which literally means “REPLY IF IT PLEASES YOU,” but idiomatically, means “PLEASE REPLY.”
My confused French friends and the story of the invitation
Silly me, I thought my French friends would understand the meaning of RSVP since it is a French abbreviation. I was so so wrong.
“Annie, can you design an invitation for my going away party?”
One of my good friends in France asked me to create an invitation (in French) for her going away party. She and her family were moving to Russia for three years for a job opportunity.
I happily agreed and came up with the idea to make the invitation look like a postcard with five red Russian nesting dolls—one for each family member, including the cat.
I think the invitation turned out super cute! Don’t you?
As I created the invitation in Photoshop, my girlfriends looked over my shoulder, giving me annoying but welcomed feedback.
When it came time to type RSVP at the bottom of the invitation, one of my friends squealed in a high pitched voice “mais qu’est ce que c’est ça, RSVP?” which could mean anything from “but what is this RSVP?” all the way to “What the hell is that, RSVP?”.
My friends have a whacky sense of humour, so at first, I thought they were joking or pretending not to know the meaning of RSVP. It is, after all, a French abbreviation for the French phrase “Répondez, S’il Vous Plaît.”
So yes, I was a little confused. It took me a few minutes to wrap my head around this simple fact.
I tried explaining to them how Anglophone countries use RSVP, but nothing clicked until I told them it was like adding “R” to “SVP,” short for “S’il Vous Plait,” a well known French abbreviation for the word “please.”
They were intrigued by the use of “RSVP” in the English language but said we shouldn’t use it on a French invitation because no one would understand what it meant.
I was a little embarrassed and irritated because I had created several birthday invitations for my daughter over the years and used RSVP. No one ever said anything to me.
How to ask people to RSVP in French
There are several ways you can request people to RSVP on French invitations. My friend asked me to simply type “Réponse avant le 30 Septembre”, which means respond before the 30th of September.
Here are six additional ways you can ask someone to RSVP on French invitations.
- Réponse souhaitée = Response wanted
- Réponse souhaitée avant la (date) = Response wanted before the (date)
- Merci de me confirmer ta présence= Thank you for confirming your presence
- Merci de confirmer ta présence le plus tôt possible en contactant au (tel) ou (email)= Thank you for confirming your presence asap by calling ((phone number)) or ((email ))
- Confirmez votre participation avant la (date)= Confirm your participation before the (date)
- “Prière de Répondre” = (Somewhat more formal) Pray do respond
Personally, I like “réponse souhaitée” followed by my contact information- phone number or email. It’s simple and to the point. Not too formal and not too friendly.
Why isn’t RSVP used in everyday French anymore?
Like all languages, French has evolved, and as a result, many French words and phrases are no longer used in modern French, or the meaning has changed.
RSVP is one of the many old French words or abbreviations in this case, which has fallen out of widespread use by most French people today.
Here are a few more examples of French words that have fallen out of popular use in France but are still used by French Canadians:
- Bébelle: Bébélle comes from thirteenth-century old French meaning” children’s toy.” My aunty in Montreal loves to say “Remasse tes bébélles” which idiomatically means (pick up your stuff).
- Croche: In French Canadian, this can mean anything from crooked to dishonest. But in France, it’s not really used at all anymore.
How did RSVP become part of the English language?
To understand how RSVP became standard on invitations and cards in English speaking countries, you need to understand a little history.
In the year 1066, William the Conqueror of Normandy invaded England and defeated the English King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. William was then crowned the first Norman King of England.
When William ascended the English throne, he spoke little to no English. Despite being of Scandinavian descent, William spoke a dialect of French, which he made the official language of the English court.
French remained the language of the English royal court for centuries and gradually blended with the Anglo-Saxon language— infusing it with new French words and giving birth to modern English.
11th. Century: RSVP begins to pop up on English birthday cards
RSVP, often written R.S.V.P. (with periods) eventually made its way onto English birthday cards and wedding invitations beginning later in the 11th century.
French was still considered high fashion among the elite of the English court, and speaking French showed your elite status.
This affinity for all things French continued in England for several hundred years then travelled across the Atlantic where it became fashionable among high society in the United States— using French words showed refinement.
This trend continued until around the 19th century, and from this, RSVP and many other French words and phrases made their way into the English language and stayed despite it falling out of use and fashion in the French language.
And that is why RSVP is used in the English language but not the French language.
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