History of the abbreviation R.I.P.
February 23, 2005 1:01 PM   Subscribe

The abbreviation R.I.P. stands for the Latin "Reqiescat in Pace." I'm trying to get past the insensitivity of not bothering to spell out the epitaph on someone's tombstone and instead concentrate on understanding why and how this convention originated.

Google has plenty of explanations for what RIP means, but few for why it's abbreviated (seriously is it that much less expensive), or more importantly how it originated.
posted by Jeff Howard to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Cause carving tombstones takes time and lots of money?
posted by agregoli at 1:02 PM on February 23, 2005

"requiescat in pace" is five times as many characters as RIP, plus it takes up a lot more space. I'd bet the abbreviation seriously is that much less expensive. Abbreviations on tombstomes are nothing new.
posted by kenko at 1:07 PM on February 23, 2005

Cause carving tombstones takes time and lots of money?

Actually, not as much as you'd imagine. My grandfather made his living carving gravestones and pretty much everybody in the town he lived in was connected to granite carving. Lately the towns economy has been suffering, in part, they say, due to the fcat that mass produced memorials are cheaply available.
posted by jonmc at 1:08 PM on February 23, 2005

Tombstone carvers charge by the letter. Simple as that.
posted by ColdChef at 1:09 PM on February 23, 2005

I think agregoli has it, tombstone carvers charge by the letter. No matter how cheap it is [and I live just south of where jonmc's grandfather lived] it's cheaper to have fewer letters inscribed. This article outlines many other tombstone abbreviations that people find in cemeteries.
posted by jessamyn at 1:10 PM on February 23, 2005

as wikipedia points out, it also stands for "rest in peace" (and that is sometimes carved onto gravestones). also, who says using an abbreviation is insensitive? IHS is another common religious abreviation - neither that not RIP seem insensitive to me.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:14 PM on February 23, 2005

It seems like, in general, the english language has absorbed several latin phrases as acronyms only, with most people not knowing the original latin, or even that it originally was latin. For example, i.e., e.g., QED, etc. I thought RIP was simply Rest In Peace -- which the latin obviously is, but, it had not occurred to me that it's origins might be more, well, *directly* latin. In the same way that I think a lot of people think that e.g. is exactly "example given" or some such thing.
posted by RustyBrooks at 1:15 PM on February 23, 2005

expanding on both the above, presumably it was convenient to have something with both latin and english interpretations when the church used latin and the congregation did not.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:17 PM on February 23, 2005

Okay. Hard as it is to swallow that people apply the same value metrics to tombstones as they do to telegrams, let's focus on the second part, the how.

How (or when) did Reqiescat in Pace become the defacto epitaph? Why not L8R, or CYA? (on preview thanks andrew) If we're saving money, why not just an arrow pointing to heaven?
posted by Jeff Howard at 1:21 PM on February 23, 2005

And to think I thought it existed in shortform merely for the benefit of jokes like "Here likes Susan Johnson. Let 'er RIP"
posted by Robot Johnny at 1:24 PM on February 23, 2005

(slightly off topic, but maybe looking down on abbreviations is a modern thing?)
posted by andrew cooke at 1:41 PM on February 23, 2005

LOL, ROTFL, u r gr8!
posted by agregoli at 1:43 PM on February 23, 2005

My first thought was that it dated back to a time when literacy was fairly uncommon, and a three-letter abbreviation could be easily understood by all.

I don't have any basis for that, just my own personal theory.
posted by Kellydamnit at 1:44 PM on February 23, 2005

You know, I can't remember ever seeing RIP on a real tombstone. Mostly, I've seen it on drawings of tombstones in cartoons. As a drawing convention, it makes a lot of sense — why write lots of little words on a tombstone in the background when a few big letters will get the point across?

Although I'll grant you I spend a lot more time watching cartoons than looking at tombstones. Maybe I'm missing something.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:06 PM on February 23, 2005

"If we're saving money, why not just an arrow pointing to heaven?"

There are gravestones in an old, old cemetery in the town where I went to grade school and junior high (I walked passed it every day on the way to school) that were engraved with a hand, index finger extended and pointing upwards.

There were also a lot of grave stones with old fashioned bales of hay on them (like a bunch of hay cinched around the middle). I always wondered what that was about.
posted by jennyb at 2:40 PM on February 23, 2005

jennyb, I believe those are sheaves of wheat, not hay bales. Staff of life, perhaps.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:23 PM on February 23, 2005

Related question: where is "Requiem in terra pax" from, other than a Family Guy episode? Is it biblical? Not knowing Latin, I don't quite understand how it differs from "Reqiescat in Pace" except that "Requiem" seems to mean "rest" as a noun rather than a verb (or maybe a gerund?). I definitely don't get pace vs. pax.

Oh, also, nebulawindphone: "RIP" definitely has appeared on some tombstones through the ages. Bunches of them appear in Boot Hill cemetary in Tombstone, AZ, as well as the famous "Here lies Lester Moore Four slugs from a .44 No Les No More". Seriously!
posted by rkent at 5:30 PM on February 23, 2005

Graveyard iconography is a pretty fascinating subject. The sheaves of wheat are a metaphor; wheat starts a seed, grows throughout its season, and is cut down for harvest when ripe. The metaphor likens our human lives to the short span of time during which wheat grows. Wheat grasses were cut (reaped) using a scythe; this is why the Grim Reaper is always represented holding a scythe.

Note also that when wheat is harvested, the grassy stalk is left to rot, while the grain, the wheat berry itself, goes on to be used for our nourishment. It has a second life, in a way, in us. Christians (particularly in Puritan America) viewed death as a literal separation of the wheat from the chaff -- the most important nugget of us, the soul, would go on to a second life in heaven, while the chaff, the used body, would remain on earth.

This is also why, on graves up until at least 1820, you'll hardly ever see "Here Lies Joe Schmo". Joe Schmo was not there at all, according to religious ideals. Instead you'll see a careful mention of "Here LIe the Remains of Joe Schmo" or "Here lies the earthly body of Joe Schmo."

I could go on, 'cos this shit is so interesting, but I'll spare you. If you ever come to my neck of New England, I'll give you the graveyard tour.
posted by Miko at 8:04 PM on February 23, 2005

Related question: where is "Requiem in terra pax" from, other than a Family Guy episode? Is it biblical?

Hmmm... I think there is something missing from that latin phrase. Since pax is nom. and requiem is acc, you can't substitute a form of sum (is). I suppose you could use something like donat and translate it as "peace gives rest on earth."

But I wonder if, judging from people's usage, what you have isn't two separate phrases: requiem and in terra pax. The latter is part of a frequently used latin response in Catholic Churches: Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax (glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth).

So maybe the whole thing is something like "let him have rest, and let there be peace on earth"... but this isn't by any means an official answer.

I definitely don't get pace vs. pax.

It's a difference in inflected forms. The complete list of forms for pax, pacis is pax, pacis, paci, pacem, pace, pax; paces, pacum, pacibus, paces, pacibus, paces. pace is what is called the singular ablative form. The ablative in latin is used in many places, one of which is following certain prepositions. You'll notice that in reqiescat in pace the word peace is part of a prepositional phrase, while in in terra pax it isn't.
posted by sbutler at 9:10 PM on February 23, 2005

(slightly off topic, but maybe looking down on abbreviations is a modern thing?)

Not off topic at all. I think you're right. Abbreviations such as "Hn" for "Honorable" or INRI for "Iesvs Nazarenvs Rex Ivdaeorvm" or RI for "Rex/Regina Imperator" or KCMG for "Knight (or Dame) Commander of the [Order of] St Michael and St George" were used in the past, and still are, with no connotation of hurried disrespect.
posted by mono blanco at 11:34 PM on February 23, 2005

Abbreviation is pretty common when it comes to carving letters into stone. The Romans had a long list of abbreviations they used and this is one of the first things one is taught in an introductory course in epigraphy.

Some stock phrases on tombstones "in pace", often just this, sometimes with a verb (est/ requiescit/ abiit) seems to have been in use from rather early on on Christian tombstones (possibly taken directly from the pagan tradition?) Currently at home I can only find the variation "hic requiesit in pace (...)" (here lies in peace, with indicative instead of RIP's conjunctive) from around 525 and "in pace" with verb of your choice to be understood from 471.

Eventually the phrase "requiscat in pace" expressing the wish/hope, must have become so common that the abbreviation would be readily recognised -and as said above - cheaper to carve, and after all they has a tradition for abbreviations.
posted by mummimamma at 2:19 AM on February 24, 2005

i was thinking about this more last night. and it struck me this might go back to before printing. when books were hand written i think abbreviations would have been the norm for two reasons. first, it's less to write and second, it takes less space. handwriting takes up a lot of room - that's why gothic lettering is so compressed (afaik), to try and get more words on a page. so i wouldn't be surprised if RIP first appeared in ancient manuscripts.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:45 AM on February 24, 2005

Andrew Cooke, you're exactly right. Even long after the invention of commercial printing, ordinary people spent far more time engaged in the physical act of writing than we can possibly imagine. They carried on correspondence that would astound even several-a-day MeFi posters. They kept written ledger books and logbooks. Any opportunity for a widely understood abbreviation was welcome.

One example: even common first names, such as William, John, or Alexander, are often found shortened in correspondence, as in Wm., Jn., or Axr.

From some preliminary poking around, I've discovered some Victorian and Edwardian etiquette sources that draw a distinction between abbreviations used in business correspondence and those used in personal correspondence: OK in the former case, rude in the latter. An excerpt from the "Youth's Educator for Home and Society (1896):"

Business people, to save time, date their letters ? "2-4-91?" meaning fourth day, second month of 1891. It is impolite in friendly correspondence. Addresses should be in figures, as "No. 21, Carpenter St.;" the day of the month also, as "Sept. 3." Numerals are not proper in letters. Were you to speak of the century, it would be "the nineteenth century." The age should be spelled out, as "He is sixty to-day." The titles of persons preceding their name, should be abbreviated ? "Hon. Reverdy Johnson," "Rev. Dr. Bacon." States are abbreviated when the town precedes them, as "Boston, Mass.;" "Viz." for videlicet, meaning "namely," or "to wit;" "i. e." for id est (it is;) "e. g." for exempli gratia ("for example;") "ult" for ultimo ? last month; "prox." for proximo ? next month; "inst. " for instant ? the present month; "etc. " for et cetera, "and the rest," or "and so on;" "v." or "vs." for versus; "vol." ? volume; "chap." chapter; "A. M.," "M.," and "P. M." for forenoon, noon, and afternoon. Figures are used in denoting sums of money, or large quantities ? as "$200,000;" "175,000 barrels;" per cent., "30 per cent.;" degrees of latitude longitude or temperature, unless the degree sign is used, are spelled out; also fractions, in correspondence as "three-fourths," "seven-eighths."

Given that Victorians were absolutely preoccupied -- some might say 'obsessed' -- with prescribed ettiquette (much of it newly coined), it would make sense that the late 19th century would be the time when abbreviation began to be frowned upon as hasty, cheap, or hurried.
posted by Miko at 6:42 AM on February 24, 2005

Yes, it's the time and expense and space historically associated with carving in stone -- it might be cheap now, but it wasn't in Roman times.

A good example is on this page where one can see

that the Romans abbreviated "Libertinus" (freedman) as "L," "Vixit" (he lived) as "V," and "Annos" (years) as "A."
posted by vitia at 1:03 PM on February 25, 2005

And then they abbreviated 22 as XXII. Seriously, thanks everyone for the links and insight.
posted by Jeff Howard at 7:28 AM on February 26, 2005

« Older Hypertension   |   Which small animal? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.