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

Don't be surprised if 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. Despite being a French acronym-not an English one, French people rarely if ever use the term let alone understand what it means. Discover why and what you should write on a French invitation instead of the letters RSVP.

My confused French Friends: And the story of the invitation

Let me begin by saying that the friends I refer to in this story are French. This is important because the statements below are based on my personal 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 an invitation for her going away party. Her husband’s company was transferring him to Russia and their enire family was making the move for three years. AMAZING OPPORTUNITY!

I happily agreed and came up with a clever idea to make the invitation look like a post card with 5 red Russian nesting dolls-one for each family member including the cat.

Don't be surprised if 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 and that’s when I heard 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 wacky sense of humour so at first I thought they were joking. RSVP is after-all an acronym for a French phrase.  Not to mention the fact that SVP which is one letter shy of RSVP is well known and commonly used by ALL French people in written correspondence so why the hell wouldn’t they know what RSVP means.

It quickly became clear that they weren’t joking and had no idea what RSVP meant. Perhaps it’s a regional thing and people in Paris are more knowledgeable about using RSVP but in my small town in the South of France, not one of my French friends had any clue.

How to ask people to RSVP in France

My two friends agreed that I should write “Réponse avant le 30 Septembre” which means “Respond before the 30th of Septembre” at the bottom of the invitation so that is what I did.

I learned that there are multiple ways to ask someone to RSVP in France.

Here are six different ways you can ask someone to RSVP in French. These are all ones I have personally seen on invitations.An example of how to ask for an RSVP in French on a French invitation

  1. Réponse 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 au ((tel)) ou ((date))= Thank you for confirming your presence by calling ((phone number)) or ((email ))
  5. Confirmez votre participation 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 souhaitée” 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 or the meaning has changed. RSVP is one of the many old French words or acronyms in this case which has fallen out of popular use by most French people today.

You can see many examples of old French words in the French Canadian language such as:

  • 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 has changed in France. 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 normally 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 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 English and stayed.

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