The Latin ablative re has become a word in English, meaning "regarding" or "with reference to" or something along those lines. This is also used in emails as an automatically generated prefix "Re: " to replies. Was the word re used in a similar fashion in antiquity, to indicate the topic at the start of a letter or a passage? In other words, did Romans use re in the same meaning as we do today in English?

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    Is re usually meant to stand in for reply in emails? – Nick May 23 '16 at 22:36
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    Cause if it is, then I somewhat doubt Romans (back when letters were of course written and could have taken days to deliver) would have had a need to clarify that their letters were responses to an original letter - it would have been obvious that certain letters came in a certain temporal order, or at least easier to keep track of than nowadays, when we receive hundreds of emails a week and can't possibly keep a mental ordering of all our correspondences. (But that's still all speculation on my part - they could have used re for all I know)... – Nick May 23 '16 at 22:41
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    @Nick, I have been informed that the re is not short for "reply" or "response", but really is the word re. It practically means "reply to" in email titles, however. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 24 '16 at 5:56
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    @Nick In the 1970s, I was first told that "Re" on (paper, carbon copy, and mimeograph) letters was the Latin word, meaning "the matter". I read the same thing in many places before email began. The contemporary understanding as an abbreviation of "Reply" is a misunderstanding, though today it prevails. Before the switch, you would not see "Re" and "Subject" at the top of the same letter, since that would be redundant. – Ben Kovitz Jun 20 '16 at 0:22
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    @BenKovitz oh wow, didn't know that -- latin's everywhere! – Nick Jun 20 '16 at 1:05

Yes, it does have an ancient origin. See RFC 5332 (3.6.5):

When used in a reply, the field body MAY start with the string "Re: " (an abbreviation of the Latin "in re", meaning "in the matter of") followed by the contents of the "Subject:" field body of the original message. If this is done, only one instance of the literal string "Re: " ought to be used since use of other strings or more than one instance can lead to undesirable consequences.

  • Thanks, but this does not exactly answer my question. I wanted to know if the word re (with or without preposition) was used in a similar meaning in ancient times. To me at least re makes sense without a preposition as well, but I would rather let attested ancient usage be the judge of that. – Joonas Ilmavirta May 27 '16 at 12:35
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    Interesting! I always thought Re: was from Reply, just as Fwd: is from Forward, but apparently not. – Cerberus Jun 19 '16 at 14:25
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    Huh, I thought it meant "Regarding", since I've also seen it used in memo titles ("Re: The bicycle shed") – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Sep 26 '16 at 2:20
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    I never would have guessed that there is actually an RFC for that! – Mom344 Jan 29 '19 at 9:41

Re was certainly used with the same meaning, as stendarr points out in another answer, but it was not used in the same manner. For example, Cicero did not start his letters with it, although there are examples of him using the word with the meaning "in the matter of."

There are many references in ancient texts showing the use of the word res in the ablative with the meaning "in the matter of." The Romans used res much like we use the word "thing" and they used it frequently. Even our word "republic" is from res publica which literally means "the public thing."

In a crazy sci-fi world where the Romans had email, I think using re just as we do would be completely consistent and appropriate.

Edit: From Cicero's letters:

  1. in hac re translated as "in this matter"

I found abundant other examples among Cicero's letters of his use of re which I think could hold a meaning like what we're discussing, but this was the only one for which I was able to match the Latin text to an existing translation.

These examples are all in the body of his letters as he directs the reader's attention to some matter they've previously discussed. Re does not ever occur as a sort of subject line like we use it. There's also the example I mentioned in the comments.

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    Can you give some ancient examples where re means "in the matter of"? With such examples this answer would be great. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jun 19 '16 at 12:00
  • I have an immediately available snippet of a quote here in my dictionary that shows ea re from Cicero and gives the translation as "on that account," which I think fits the bill here. I'll spend a little more time today and tomorrow to see if I can dig up any other examples. – coralvanda Jun 19 '16 at 13:55
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    Ok, good. In questions like this it really makes a difference to give explicit quotes with links to some online text corpus (some include English translations) for wider context. I'll wait and see what you found. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jun 19 '16 at 14:05
  • Added an edit with another example. – coralvanda Jun 20 '16 at 11:38
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    Thanks. (+1) I still wonder if re (or ea re or hac re) occurs without prepositions. It can be grammatically valid without a preposition, and it seems that in modern usage a preposition is never used. – Joonas Ilmavirta Jun 20 '16 at 11:51

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