Bryan Caplan  

The Origin of the Word "Relationship"

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To my ears, the word "relationship" has long sounded like psycho-babble invented circa 1950.  It's hard to imagine anyone in the 19th-century discussing their "relationships." 

Tonight I decided to finally investigate my hypothesis.  I was almost dead on: According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word "relationship" first appeared in 1744, but was not applied "specifically of romantic or sexual relationships" until 1944.  I'm still unclear on when the term expanded to encompass all enduring social ties - it feels like it happened in the 70s, but I'm not quite old enough to remember.

The weird thing is that I can't think of any old-fashioned synonym.  Can traditional societies get by with "kinsman," "friend," "ally," and the like without needing any broader category?  Or what?


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Fazal Majid writes:

The word "intercourse" had that meaning (not just in the sexual sense) back then.

Trevor Brown writes:

My guess is that relationships existed for many centuries before the word was first recorded....just a hunch

Amaturus writes:

Going to the Germanic side of English, you have the word "bond". The Online Etymological Dictionary says that's connected to the word "band", which can be traced all the way to the Gothic (the oldest written Germanic language, 4th Century AD)"bandwa": "a sign". Apparently a band of cloth worn by soldiers for identification. I think "bond" is the old-fashioned synonym you couldn't find.

adam writes:

Synonyms from bygone times: liaison, affair, and, long ago indeed, romance.

Bob Knaus writes:

Bryan is partly right, "relationships" were often denoted by more specific words.

I do think that "friend" is the closest synonynm from the 1600s and 1700s. Numerous quotes from Shakespeare and the Bible show a wide variety of meaning, from "patron" to "acquaintence" to "disciple" to "bosom buddy".

ajb writes:

By considering the word "intercourse" in its older usage we see that the need for the word was limited to very abstract, highly distanced discussions. The relationships that "mattered" were more circumscribed and precise. There was no need to have a word that would encompass all of friendship, marriage, acquaintanceship, business familiarity, hierarchy, kinship and other familial interactions in the same term.

ajb writes:

I also suspect the popularity of "relationship" was due to the pop-psychology scientistism that sought to divorce love, marriage, sex, affairs, and other romantic entanglements from their traditional connotations and make them an object of "neutral" discourse. The other terms were loaded with the baggage of traditional judgment and creating a new term became a SWPL way of signalling your modernity and neutrality. In some cases it became easier to create a moral equivalence between (for example) marriage and homosexual coupling or between platonic friendships and affairs.

Patrick writes:

It's interesting how euphemisms decay over time. "Intercourse" is used, with a straight face, in the scientific literature.

I still snicker on the inside when people say "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" because they're too squeamish to say "lover."

Mike Kenny writes:

It seems like possibly there's a trend. I note a lot of people nowadays don't like to put labels on their relationships--are they a couple, et c. I wonder if people have a greater need to keep their options open. Getting tied down nowadays seems more costly than it did int he past, since opportunity costs are so great now compared to then!

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

O'Brian's Master And Commander (set around 1800) uses "particular friend".

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