Why Don’t The French Know The Meaning of RSVP: A French Acronym?

Don't be surprised in French people don't know the meaning of RSVP despite it being a French acronym

RSVP, it’s what you write on an invitation when you want a response from the invited person. But RSVP is a French acronym not an English one. Discover why the so few French people understand the meaning of RSVP and learn what you should write on a French invitation instead of the letters RSVP.

My confused French Friends: And the story of the invitation

If you are new to this blog, let me begin by saying that I’ve been living in France for almost five years and the friends in this story are French.
This is important because the statements below are based on my experiences which may be different than other expats living in France.

‘Annie can you design an invitation for my party?’

My friend asked me to create a going away party invitation -her husbands company was transferring him and moving the entire family to Russia. AMAZING OPPORTUNITY!

I came up with a clever idea to make the invitation look like a post card. Then I put 5 red Russian nesting doll, one for each family member, on the card and placed each family members head onto a doll. I even included the cat.

Don't be surprised in French people don't know the meaning of RSVP despite it being a French acronym

I think the invitation turned out super cute!

What the hell does RSVP mean?

As I created the invitation in photoshop, two of my girlfriends looked over my shoulder giving me feedback when needed.  When the invitation was complete, I typed RSVP  at the bottom of the invitation. That’s when I hear one of my friends say  “qu’est ce que c’est ça?” in a high pitched voice which could mean anything from “what is this?” all the way to  “What the hell is that?”. 

“RSVP is a French acronym for Répondez, S’il Vous Plaît which means “please reply” or “reply if it pleases you”. 
I have friends with a whacky sense of humour so at first I thought they must be joking. RSVP is afterall an acronym for a French phrase. RSVP is also just one letter shy of SVP, the acronym for S’il vous plaît- which as you probably already know means “Please”.  EVERY French person knows the meaning of SVP so it didn’t seem like a stretch to expect my girl friends to know what RSVP meant.

After a few minutes, it became clear that they had no idea what RSVP meant .  To be honest, I just thought my friends were -shall we say, information challenged?  
Over the course of the next few weeks, I started asking my friends if they knew what RSVP meant. NOT a one person knew so if there are French people who know what it means, they don’t live in my town.

Back to my invitation.

I ended up writing “Réponse avant le 30 Septembre” at the bottom of the invitation because that’s what my friends wanted me to write . But there is more than one way to ask an invitee to respond to an invitation.

How to ask people to RSVP in France

There are of course many ways which you could ask someone to RSVP in French. By the way, not ALL French people are clueless about the meaning of RSVP. More on this in a moment.

Here are six different ways you can ask someone to RSVP in French. These are all ones I have personally seen on invitations.

  1. Reponse souhaitée = Response wanted
  2. Réponse souhaitée avant le ((date)) = Response wanted before the ((date))
  3. Merci de me confirmer ta présence= Thank you for confirming our presence
  4. Merci de confirmer ta présence le plus tôt possible en contactant ((date))= Thank you for confirming your presence before the ((date))
  5. Confirmez votre paricipation avant le ((date))=  Confirm your participation before the ((date))
  6. “Prière de Répondre” = (Somewhat more formal)  Pray do respond.

If you had to choose one, I would choose “réponse souhaitéee” which seems to be the most popular thing to write on most invitations.

Why isn’t RSVP commonly used in everyday French anymore?

Like all languages, French has evolved and as a result many French words and phrases are either no longer used in modern French (even though that word or phrase actually still exists if you look them up in the dictionary) or the meaning has changed.

RSVP is one of the many old French words, acronyms, really, that has fallen out of popular use by most French people today.

The use of old French in Quebec Canada

This isn’t the first time I’ve used an old or outdated French word in France. My father’s family is from French-speaking Quebec Canada. Canadian French still uses many old French words that fell out of use in France and as a result are not usually understood by people in France anymore.

Some example of old French words which I commonly use but which are not so common in France.

  • Bébelle: Bébélle comes from thirteenth century old French meaning”children’s toy”. My aunty in Montreal loves to say “Remasse tes bébélles” (pick up your stuff).
  • Barrer: a word used in both France and Quebec but the meaning is different. When I go home to Quebec, I use the verb “barrer” to ask if the door is locked. “Est-ce que la porte est barré?” But in France, one would say “Fermé à clé”. Barrer is used in France to indicate something is blocking something else. The one exception is in Vendeé Poitou France where Barrer is still used by some people in the same way it is used in Quebec.  To indicate a door is locked. This might be due to the fact that many French Canadians, “Quebecois” can trace their lineage back to Poitou France, including me- 7 generations back. I’m just guessing here so if you know differently than please do share.

Why do English speakers use RSVP?

As it happens, I am writing this on the 28th of September which happens to be the anniversary of William the Conqueror of Normandy’s arrival in England in 1066, and after his victory at the Battle of Hastings, the French language merged with what the British were speaking, Saxon and Old Norse.

RSVP, often written R.S.V.P., made its way onto English birthday cards and wedding invitations beginning later in the 11th century – French was 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 traveled across the Atlantic where it became fashionable among high society in the United States- using French words showed refinement.

This trend continuted until around the 19th century and from this, RSVP and many other French words and phrases made their way into English and stayed.

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