What Does CC Mean in Email?

By: Laurie L. Dove & Zach Taras  | 
The CC and BCC functions in your email allow you to make a complete copy of an email and send it to any recipient, or recipients, you choose. Sanford/Agliolo/Getty Images

How often do you use the CC function when you send an email? Filling in that line, which usually appears directly below the "To" field, is a handy and efficient way to send information to more than one recipient at the same time. But what does CC mean in email?


CC in Email

CC literally stands for carbon copy, a reference to earlier forms of written communication that we'll explore below. In today's world of electronic mail (email, of course!), the CC field is used to include addresses besides the primary recipient. This is a way to include other parties in a communication.

If you're already a regular user of email communication, you probably know that this how the CC field works in your email provider. But even so, you might be unclear about when it's best to click CC and use this function. And if you're curious about the roots of the phrase, you've come to the right place.


Carbon Copy Used to Involve Paper

Draw near and I'll tell you a story about life before the internet, long before electronic mail with its CC and BCC fields was as near as the tips of our fingers. How, you may wonder, did we communicate before having to be aware of email etiquette?

Unless you're familiar with the days of old in which the primary means of communication was to create a paper trail — or record of communication — using literal paper, you may not know how the CC and BCC abbreviations originated.


Even after the first personal computers began appearing in homes and offices during the 1980s, most people and companies still relied on paper to record, share or store information. And what if more than one copy of that piece of paper was required?

Carbon Paper

Enter: carbon paper. To duplicate the information on a single sheet of paper, you would place a piece of carbon paper between that paper and one below it.

This carbon "sandwich" allowed people to use a typewriter to input something once and have it appear on both the original paper and the paper under the carbon layer.

The pigment from the carbon sheet would be transferred to the paper under it and create a "carbon copy." Therefore, CC stands for "carbon copy."

What's Cool About Carbon

The pigment that coats a piece of carbon paper is actually comprised of carbon black impregnated with wax to help it adhere to the paper and to prevent it from smearing before use. Carbon black is a close cousin to graphite (found commonly in pencil lead), but has a much finer texture.

To create carbon black, air and a hydrocarbon such as petroleum oil are pumped into a furnace where the heat causes the oil to combust; it's then fueled to ever-higher temperatures by air.

Once the temperature reaches 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,648 degrees Celsius), the unburned carbon decomposes to carbon black, which is then cooled and harvested. For comparison, consider the fact that, at its hottest, molten lava only reaches 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,600 degrees Celsius).

Carbon Copy Today

Well, paper eventually went the way of the dinosaurs, and carbon copy was eventually abbreviated to CC. Over time, the meaning of the CC line has come to reflect its modern usage in the email inbox.

It now also refers to a Courtesy Copy, a term that more closely matches its function when used in an email chain. Recipients usually are CC'd when they need to see an email but don't necessarily need to respond — or when they are not the primary recipient, or even one of the main recipients.

The one potential drawback to including recipients in the CC field is that everyone to whom the email is sent can see the other recipients and their email addresses.

And that's where the BCC field (BCC stands for blind carbon copy), comes into play. Located directly under the CC field, blind carbon copy (the BCC line) allows you to send the same email to yourself or to multiple people while keeping their email addresses — and the fact that they've been copied — private.


How to Use the CC Field: Email Etiquette

As most of us have learned by now, there really aren't any rules on the internet. Still, it's possible to follow some guidelines when it comes to CC and BCC fields, especially in specific communications, such as those within professional contexts.

  1. Keeping people in the loop. When you've got a new message that includes important information for a large group but doesn't specifically concern every person, CC-ing the group is appropriate.
  2. Connecting new people. If you're using an email to connect different people who might not have each other's contact information, or as a way to onboard a new contact, it's good to use CC.
  3. Sorting between recipients. If you have a message going to many recipients, using CC to include some of them can be a way to signal that they are not the primary recipients, but that they may find the information useful or important.


When to Avoid the CC Field

Of course, there are times when using the CC field isn't the right move. In these cases, you should either put the recipient in the "To" field or in BCC.

  1. Sensitive information. If there's information that needs to be kept to a certain group, such as human resources info, CC can be too transparent, as it allows the whole list to see who else is on it. The BCC field will help ensure that the recipient only knows who the email is coming from, not who else is getting it.
  2. Playing mind games. If you're using the CC field as a way to make someone feel excluded, you should probably rethink your current practices. By signaling that they are not the main recipient, a CC can be a passive aggressive way to make a person feel less-than, which is unprofessional and frankly unkind.
  3. Personal communications. Sometimes, an email can contain a good deal of personal, heartfelt information and emotion. If you're sharing these thoughts and feelings with people who should feel included equally, avoid the CC function, which can have somewhat impersonal connotations.