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As far as I know 「なさい」 is the imperative form of 「なさる」. So why does 「お帰りなさい」 mean "welcome home"? Wouldn't it mean something like "please return"? If it was just 「お帰り」, I could understand it as a mean of taking notice of someone's return.

I was looking at this question and there it's explained that 「お帰りなさい」 takes the same form as 「ごめんなさい」 and 「お休みなさい」, but the translations "please forgive me" and "please rest" actually make sense in the context they're used.

According to this link, it's an abbreviation of 「(ようこそ)お帰りなさいました」. Another person suggests the origin 「よくお帰りになりました」. I'm not sure which one matches the meaning better.

I'm especially confused because 「お帰りなさいませ」 seems to be an acceptable greeting as well. And isn't 「ませ」 also imperative?

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check out this excerpt from 大辞林第三版 on ませ

ませ( 助動 )
〔丁寧の助動詞「ます」の命令形〕
① 「いらっしゃる」「おっしゃる」「くださる」「なさる」「申す」「召す」などの動詞の連用形に付いて,相手に対して,その動作をするようにという要求を,丁寧の気持ちを含めて言い表す。 「くれぐれも御自愛くださいませ」 「十分お気をつけなさいませ」
② 挨拶(あいさつ)の語句に用いて,語調を丁寧にする。 「お帰りなさいませ」 〔② は,元来,「よくお帰りなさいました」のような言い方の省略した形「お帰りなさい」を,命令の言い方と混同して,それに「ます」の命令形「ませ」を付けて,丁寧な気持ちを添えようとしたところからできたもの〕 → まし(助動) ・ ます(助動)

We can see that ませ has two main uses, one is as a very polite 命令形 (imperative) with ます, and the other is as a way to make polite greetings softer.

We can also see here that お帰りなさい most likely used to be a phrase similar to よくお帰りなさいました which I would translate as "I'm happy to see you've come home" (you allude to this in your question). From this phrase, the current theory is that over time the ました was removed for convenience sake, giving us お帰りなさい. This なさい is the same as the polite 命令形 of なさる, and it was treated as such with the addition of ませ to soften it, giving us お帰りなさいませ.

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