Do we need to revise the use of RE in the digital age?

“RE:” – yes the famous “RE:” you find all too often in email subject fields, but what does it really mean?

Re: means “in reference to” or “in regard to”. It is from the Latin word “Res”, meaning “thing”. You’ll also commonly see Re: in the subject lines of e-mail messages.

To understand how “RE:” became so well known and used, we have to take a step back in time to when it was originally invented and put to good use. In these times, paper was the most common means of business communication. Paper letters often did not contain pre-formatted fields for subject, body, from, etc. Even after the type writer was invented, handwritten mails were a perfectly acceptable way to communicate in business. This is pretty strange for most new school IT geeks who have almost forgotten how to hold a pen. I think it would almost be rude to write a handwritten letter to your boss. It would indeed be interpreted as an an all too personal interaction.

pre-defined fields were first introduced in print templates, after this Faxes naturally included them, Email as a protocol has at least the  From;Subject and Body fields. Lets pay closer attention here to the subject field.

You wouldn’t exactly start writing an email subject with the word – subject, would you? Or how about the email body, its unlikely you would even think about starting the main email body with “body:”. This would be silly, there is no reason to define the field to the reader, because the field is already defined. Everything in the subject line is the subject, in the same way everything in the body field is the body. If you take this one step further then since the introduction of predefined templates, there is no need to start an email subject with “In reference to”  because without a doubt whatever is in the subject line will dictate whatever is coming in the body field.

Why then do we continue to use our good friend “RE:”, I was amazed to find out a great deal of european non english speakers actually believe the meaning of “RE:” is reply.

The older generation, and those who have retained their business manners usually always start a business related email with RE, but its really totally obsolete, and has lost its practical function of setting standards on paper which was usually blank, containing no predefined fields. Since email now contains these fields, there is no reason to continue the use of “RE”. To many of us it feels informal starting a business email with anything other than RE:. I would especially still continue using “RE” if the email concerned a matter of employment.

I am also baffled at the younger generation / non english speakers who have adapted the meaning of “RE:” to now mean “Reply:” without questioning its real meaning, or offically informing the old school politer generation of the reuse of “RE:”, I’m baffled because they must think a great deal of well spoken business men are being silly starting every email with a reply.

What are your thoughts on this – should we continue to use this old RE: standard, rebrand it as offically meaning “Reply:” or ditch it completely.


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