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Re: What Does “Re” Mean?

When communicating through email, there is a good chance you have seen “Re:” as the introduction of the subject box. You also probably made an inference as to what that meant and went on about your life. 

However, when contemplating the meaning of the prefix, internet users are at odds, often assuming that the two letters form an abbreviation for one of several logical options based on the content of the email subject line. 

Take a moment to decide what you think it means, then read on to determine if you are right. 

Graphic illustrating what "Re" means. "Re" is used as a prefix and abbreviation.

What Can “Re” Mean?

“Re” really gets around, both as an abbreviation and a prefix. As we contemplate the popular meaning of this short expression, let’s start with the latter.

Re- as a Prefix

The prefix form of “Re-” has two significant meanings: “Again” and relating to the word “backward.” 

The first usage introduces words to indicate a recurring action (See, recurring has that prefix and means something that happens over and over). 

For example: 

When the power went out, Joseph had to restart his game. 

The loss of energy turned his game system off, so Joseph began again. The first time he began to play, he started to play; the second time made it a restart. 

Allie had to reconfigure the settings on her phone after the update. 

Beforehand, Allie had configured the phone to her liking, but the update either re-established (established again) the factory defaults or made changes to features that she did not prefer. As a result, she had to configure them over again. 

The second meaning, relating to backward action, is slightly more complicated. “Re” is a prefix for some words denoting a reference to a previous state or relating to the past somehow. 

To illustrate: 

After the cuckoo clock loudly announced the hour, it reverted to its previous state.

In this case, the clock acted to call attention to a time marker, then went “back” to its normal state. 

After the lizard lost its tail, it regenerated a new one. 

This situation is a perfect marriage of both meanings as the lizard’s initial formation generated the tail, and regeneration did so “again” but also returned the lizard to a previous state, one in which it had a tail.  

Abbreviations Using “Re”

While a “Re” prefix may explain why certain abbreviations exist, there is little debate over the meanings of those prefixes. The abbreviations, however, are sometimes a cause for hot discussion.

Here are some standard abbreviations using the letters RE: 

  • Reply – Some people and email programs use this meaning to indicate that the message replies to an original message. A previous context may be necessary to understand the content. 
  • Regarding – Sometimes, the abbreviation calls special attention to a concept or idea. For example, “Re: Phone Update” could be a heads-up that the content of an email message is about (regarding) a specific phone update. 
  • Response – Similar to “Reply,” some writers use the abbreviation to explain that their message is a response to something else. 
  • Reference – Similar to “regarding,” this use indicates that the content references a specific concept or idea. 

Graphic showing the various meanings of RE in an email: Reply, Reference, Regarding, Response

REmember the Musical Scale

RE also represents the second note on a musical scale, joining other notes to form the traditional “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do,” used to learn about musical intervals and notes on a scale. 

Note (see what I did there?) that when you use “re” in this fashion, it is pronounced like the word “ray” rather than the pronunciation “ree” used for the prefix and abbreviations above. 

RE as a Stand-Alone Word

Finally, “re” existed as a word itself far before people were arguing over what it meant in email headers. 

In Latin, the word was a preposition that meant “in reference to” or “in the matter of.” It also could mean “again” or “back.” Hence, it is pretty easy to see the connection between the original usage and how we use the prefix and abbreviations today, especially when it found its way into Middle English. 

As a result of this etymology, some people believe that “Re:” is a Latin/Middle English word used to explain that the message is about a particular subject. 

After all, “SIC” appears in English from Latin and is often used to explain that an expression appears in writing precisely as it came from another source, with any inherent grammatical errors or confusing statements left intact. 

So When Used in Email, What Meaning Does “RE:” Actually Represent?

The bottom line is this – if you wrote it, which meaning did you intend? As the author, you can choose the meaning you prefer, especially since the meanings are so similar that the reader can make their own assumptions. 

In correlation, as a reader, you can make an inference based on the context to determine for yourself what that meaning is, whether it stands for “reply,” “reference,” “regarding,” “response,” or even the actual Latin word “re.” 

Choose whatever makes you happy because that is what is really important, isn’t it?


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By James Smith

Described as an "English Guru," James Smith holds a Master's degree in English from Arkansas Tech University, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with a minor in ESL. James is a sought after writer and editor with university teaching experience.

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