What does it mean to relate? Some reflections on the history of the word and on current UK-EU relations

In many ways, almost overnight, we are suddenly in a period in the UK of looking ahead. Coronavirus restrictions were further eased on 1 June and the government has entered its final round of Brexit trade talks this month before a stock take about whether to extend the process. And while things are by no means normal, one familiar motif in international relations has quickly reared its head again: voices of concern about Britain’s relations with the EU. From the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier telling the Sunday Times last week that if the UK wanted a deal it needed to ‘show more realism’, to Lord Wallace of Saltaire declaring that ‘this government has no foreign policy’ in the House of Lords Brexit debate on the 12 May, the view is mixed at best. If the motif of a mixed view on the UK’s relations with the EU is familiar headline from before the pandemic, the pandemic has moved it from headline to a looming real-world threat. The cost to the treasury alone, for example, would be £60 billion as Baroness D’Souza highlighted in the Lords debate. Members of the press in recent days have highlighted similar sentiments: currently 40% of the economy is closed and 8 million are in furlough and not working. Is this really the time to push already fragile relations with the EU to their breaking point?

With all this is happening, I’m thinking about the word relations itself. The presuppositions we have about what it means to relate politically, what cultural forms might underpin such a relation, and how those presuppositions and cultural forms relate to what the government is up to in this era of Brexit and corona. With so much focus on ‘talks’ and ‘negotiations’ during the Brexit process, and the way that this has been exacerbated by ‘zoom diplomacy’, it’s easy to think of relations as rhetoric. The two do have a long, seemingly co-dependent history stretching back to the earliest use of the word relations in the English language.

The Oxford English Dictionaries notes that the first known usage of the word relations dates back to 1390. It did not, however, convey a connection between things or people, but rather to communicate, tell a story or to relate information. If one wanted to base a theory of meaning on etymological primacy (what comes first in the history of a words meaning), they could do so here. To relate, in English at least, meant first and foremost to communicate.

However, we also know that language evolves and takes on different meanings for speakers of that language in different historical moments. One can conjecture about why the meaning of words evolve in the way that they do, but for the average speaker, the history of meaning need not be present in the contemporary meaning of a word. In the mid 15th century, the word relation began to take on the meaning we are more familiar with today: not just conveying information but how we relate to each other. In 1456, when a now mostly forgotten Scottish poet, Sir Gilbert Hay, translated a French book on the art of Governance into English, he chose the word relation, at that time spelt relacioun, to mean not simply the relating of a story or of the relation between ideas or objects, but the connection between people or nations. It’s possibly the earliest use of the term in the English language to refer to the connection between people and Sir Hay chose it to express the idea of leaders of nations having a good connection with each other, one that produced harmony and not discord. So, in 1456, we have what is possibly the first link between the English word relations and what is one of the oldest goals of international relations in the Western tradition: how to achieve a harmonious relationship between the behaviours of different societies.

Sir Hay’s translation captures the broader sense of relations as including behaviour and customs and not just rhetoric. However, the stubborn meaning of the etymon from 1390 seems to stick with us. This has been helped along in part by the history of philosophy. Aristotle called the human being a political animal and viewed politics as one of the necessary relationships for human life. However, much of our education in the West has tended to interpret Aristotle’s views on the human beings need for political community alongside his views on good rhetoric making for good politicians. In the UK, this idea is particularly strong with such writers in the history of British politics like Walter Bagehot calling representative democracy ‘government by discussion’.

We of course know intuitively that the basis for harmony between people and nations isn’t just talking. Communication always has a context. To ‘catch up’ in the UK, we ‘go to coffee’ or ‘share a pint’. On a broader scale, harmony between nations has always been a delicate and multifaceted art. After the Second World War, when the US occupied and oversaw the rebuilding of large parts of West Germany, cultural exchange became an intentional diplomatic strategy and led to longstanding academic exchanges that still exist to this day. And, of course, trade relations, is also one of the bedrocks of international relations. For example, with 53% of all UK imports (totalling £357 billion) coming from the EU, the EU is currently the UK’s largest trading partner.

All of this leads me to a few questions and observations. It is evident that to relate means more than just rhetoric. Yet rhetoric is an often indispensable part of international relations. The UK’s trading relationship with the EU is a form of relating that, at first glance, appears to have a foundation in something other than rhetoric. Trade relies on the physical transfer of goods between nations. Yet, as is evidenced in recent weeks, the success or failure of such an arrangement requires talking. If we try too hard to carve out a singular definition, we find ourselves in a bind.

Perhaps one lesson to be drawn from the etymology of the word relation is that ‘to relate information’ is not the same as simply talking. The earliest use of the word in English may be about narration and communication but this is not reducible to rhetoric. In the same way that a narrative relies on plot as much as it does words, so too does narration and communication rely on a number of factors. In fact, many of the earliest uses of the word relation consider it a form of communication alongside poetry and sermons and this form of the word appears in texts designed to highlight the variety of ways one might relate information, including behaviours and customs. Therefore, a leader like Boris Johnson, may think he is only using words when he communicates to the EU, but the relating of his key message will automatically contain more than just words. Modern cognitive science of course reflects this reality. We know that thought and language are dependent on and convey a multitude of things beyond just thought and language with embodied cognition being just one example. Therefore, in the case of Boris Johnson, hints at the intentions behind his words may come across as EU sources close to the negotiations have reported.

This leads me to my second observation. If a politician, civil servant or diplomat has somehow found their way to this obscure corner of the internet, let me reassure them that I recognise that there is a difference between an academic understanding of the word relation and the practical art of international relations. One need not consult the Oxford English Dictionary before starting another video call with Michel Barnier. A theoretical reflection always finds a limit when interpreting that which is also learned by experience. However, with theory, we articulate what we observe. As far back as ancient Greece, this contemplative art that is contrasted to practical arts has links with diplomacy. To be sent as an ambassador to another state was in fact the same word as theoretical reckoning because both involved an observation of a state of affairs. So, while we can observe that the practical art of international relations is fundamentally different than a theoretical reflection, theoretical reflections are essential to aid in the process of considering whether what we observe has taken on a rather odd shape.

Today, when we ask, what does it mean for the UK to relate to the EU, we can observe that the behaviours and customs that are an inevitable and interdependent aspect of communication, have been forced wildly out of shape by the pandemic. Back in April, the Economist reported how one of the key obstacles for the EU in getting the work of diplomacy done, was, surprisingly, the barrier to rituals and customs that ‘zoom diplomacy’ created. Apparently, diplomats at EU summits have the habit of bringing negotiations to a close through small, late night breakout sessions that are dependent on face to face interactions. This is just one of the countless often unnoticed rituals that give communication a context. The wider context for relations will take time to heal. Therefore, politically, one of the conclusions we can draw from our etymological history, is that due to the nature of relations, it is a highly risky proposition for the UK to assume that the rhetorical aspect of its ‘government by discussion’ model will be strong enough to ‘make a success of Brexit’. Theoretically, one of the conclusions we can draw is that a well-rounded account of international relations, needs to look closely at the relationship between the concept of communication and the concept of relations. Because of the primacy of rhetoric in both the history of philosophy and our political institutions, it is far too easy to interpret the concepts of communication and relation too narrowly.

I’m the Thyssen Research Fellow at QMUL’s Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations. This blog is my space for work in progress or ‘Halbzeug’.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store