Q&A: What do “CC” and “BCC” mean?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, you've got mail…

Q: Hey AWC, when writing a new email, what’s the “CC” box for?

A: It stands for “Carbon Copy”.

Q: Oh, is that something to do with the environment? A way to offset the carbon of my digital communication?

A: Haha, nope. In fact, in the digital world, it doesn’t really make any sense – the term “carbon copy” has essentially become synonymous with a copy of an original document. For email, it’s essentially just another “TO” field, but used by many to clearly indicate that you are keeping this other person (or people) in the loop – they aren’t the main recipients of the email. They’ve been copied in.

Q: So it’s more of an etiquette and clarity thing than a special box?

A: Yeah, it helps people see who else you’ve shared the email with.

Q: But why “carbon”?

A: Okay, for that, we go back to the early 1800s. This was when the original “carbonic paper” was introduced – paper that had one side faced with “carbon black” and oil or wax, then placed face down between two sheets of paper – to copy from the top sheet to the bottom. 

Q: What exactly IS “carbon black”?

A: It has been described as a “fine, amorphous form of carbon that is not as crystalline as graphite” – the residue that forms from a heating and cooling process of a hydrocarbon like petroleum.

Q: So, some bored scientist a few centuries ago decided to burn some petrol and ended up with copy paper?

A: Exactly! By 1895, the term “carbon-copy” was coined and it became a convenient way to copy business documents. The original page would have “CC” – probably for carbon copy – added next to the signature, to indicate a copy had been made.

Q: You say it “probably” stood for carbon copy?

A: Yeah. Another theory suggests that, just like the introduction of “p:” notation for one page and “pp:” for many pages at this time, it was in fact “c:” for one copy and “cc:” for many copies. 

Q: I think I prefer to think of it as a “carbon copy”.

A: Yeah, most agree. Anyway, in 1959, Xerox introduced the first photocopying machine, changing office Christmas parties forever.

Q: Wait, who have you been speaking to?

A: Anyway, this invention provided an easier way to make copies (especially multiple copies), resulting in a slow decline in the necessity of carbon paper. Eventually the paper was only seen regularly in the “zip zap” credit card imprinter machines. And these themselves had been mostly replaced by electronic terminals by the early 2000s.

Q: Oh! My aunt used to have those machines at her market stall!

A: Oh really, what did she sell?

Q: I just told you. She sold handcrafted zipzap machines. 

A: Oh, um, okay. 

Q: So anyway, I guess email saved the “carbon copy” business?

A: Haha, well, it’s not exactly a business when it lives on in name only – but yes, the arrival of the very first electronic mail in 1975 saw a “CC” field added to provide a similar way of sending a “copy” to other recipients.

Q: And a “BCC” field for blind people – I always thought that was a nice touch.

A: Ummm, well yes it stands for a “blind carbon copy” – but this simply means that you can select other recipients whose names won’t be seen by others. 

Q: Wait, isn’t it actually a “Blind COURTESY Copy” – looping in a recipient out of common courtesy?

A: It seems that many have retrofitted this meaning in, but the original field was definitely intended to be “blind carbon copy”.

Q: And just to be clear, the recipient COULD be blind, but they don’t have to be.

A: Any range of vision is fine.

Q: Got it.

A: Some frown upon the “sneaky” use of the BCC field, but it can be especially handy for sending large group emails – ensuring that hitting “reply all” accidentally will not go to everyone on the list, as a “CC” field would see. As a recipient of a “BCC” email, you’ll likely see “Undisclosed recipients” in place of names.

Q: Well now that I know they’re not scary, I might start using them. But first, I’m off to burn some petrol and see what else I can invent!

A: Please don’t do that.

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