Words: Relevant

Television viewers want their news programmes to be "more relevant, engaging and accessible", according to someone high up in the BBC. I suppose we know what the BBC means by these three adjectives. The second one could, at first sight, suggest that the news ought to engage the viewer's interest, but in fact it's the commoner definition of engaging that the Corporation has in mind: the idea is that the news should charm the viewer. And accessible does not, it turns out, mean that it should be easy to find the right channel, only that the chosen programme should be easy to understand.

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.