Sunday 11 October 1998
But relevant is the tricky one. Lawyers have always been sure what it meant. An irrelevant fact is one that doesn't pertain to the case: a jury trying a man charged with murder, for example, should not be influenced by the fact that he is known to be a thief. By itself, however, relevant can mean anything or nothing. Relevant to what? It's like a bus without a destination board. As Socrates put it, "Many things in a controversy might appear to be relevant, if we knew to what they were intended to refer."
A contributor to the Listener (quoted in the OED) was writing in 1976: "The ultimate sin of the broadcaster is to keep off the air ... subjects which are relevant and significant", by which the writer presumably meant subjects relevant to the affairs of the day. Quite right too. But I don't think last week's BBC statement meant that at all. It meant, almost certainly, "relevant to the personal preoccupations of the viewer", a different matter.
The word became fashionable in the 1960s among educationists who were alarmed by two things. Clever pupils were producing too much unoriginal, second-hand work, while not-so-clever ones were disaffected and bored. What to do? Why, give everyone work that was "relevant to the personal experience of the child"! It was a bit like serving them the familiar porridge and denying them the bacon and eggs, but never mind. Relevance was all. It is in this tradition that the BBC talks about "relevant" programmes today. No doubt some viewers will complain that they are being treated like children.
The opposite word, irrelevant, is also much in vogue, but more among politicians. Here there is no problem about its meaning. An irrelevant opinion is one which conflicts with yours; anyone who holds such an opinion may be said to be "irrelevant". The word was often heard last week at Bournemouth, where it was used by Conservative Party members about those who disagreed with their policies on, say, Europe.
The etymology is rather misleading. The stem comes from the Latin levare, to ease, or relieve; so something that was relevant was something thought helpful in determining the matter in hand. This was what the Elizabethans meant by it. They certainly didn't associate it with the idea of giving ease, which seems to be what it implies in the current thinking of the BBC.
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
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- 2 Germanwings plane crash: Video shows co-pilot Andreas Lubitz learning to fly as a teenager
- 3 Vladimir Putin says Russia will fight for the right of Palestinians to their own state
- 4 Germanwings crash: Captain of doomed plane was only 'on board because he changed job to spend more time with his children'
- 5 Ohio Democrat Teresa Fedor speaks out during abortion debate to reveal she has been raped – and is interrupted by laughter from Republicans
Jim Davidson: 'I'd love to host Top Gear but I'm always banned from driving'
Cassetteboy joins forces with Russell Brand for Emperor's New Clothes film
Poldark, review: Demelza’s insouciance is almost as impressive as Ross’ pecs
Jay Z launches streaming service Tidal with help from Kanye West, Rihanna and Coldplay
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew