The Grammarphobia Blog

The theory of irrelevance

Q: Is it OK to say something is “more irrelevant” or do you have to say it’s “less relevant”? The second is more common, but I was wondering if the first is incorrect.

A: Both phrases are acceptable, but they have different shades of meaning.

A careful writer would use “less relevant” when comparing two relevant things, and “more irrelevant” when comparing two irrelevant things.

These hypothetical sentences will illustrate what we mean:

“The salesman insisted that price was less relevant than quality” (quality was relevant, but price less so).

“She considers numerology more irrelevant than astrology” (astrology is irrelevant to her, and numerology even more so).

The word “relevant” has had an interesting history, in case you’d like to know more.

It ultimately comes from the classical Latin verb relevare (to raise, lighten, or lessen), the same word that gave us “relieve” and “relief.”

In medieval Latin, the adjective relevantum or relevans came to mean legitimate, valid, or pertinent, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

This is the sense of “relevant” that entered English in the early 1500s, originally as a Scottish legal term.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “The modern English sense ‘appropriate’ probably developed from a medieval application of relevare to ‘take up,’ hence ‘take possession of property,’ which led to relevant being used as a legal term for ‘connected with.’”

“Relevant,” the OED says, was first recorded in Scottish law in 1516 to mean “legally sufficient, adequate, or pertinent.”

Soon afterward, another sense developed: “bearing on or connected with the matter in hand,” but the OED says that use of “relevant” was “relatively rare before 1800.”

The contemporary meaning—appropriate or applicable in the circumstances, or having relevance—didn’t become common until the 1950s, the OED says.

We’re old enough to remember that for a while in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the word was so widely overused that it became almost trite.

Here’s an OED citation from a 1969 issue of Harper’s Magazine: “Either we can commit ourselves to changing the institutions of our society that need to be changed, to make them—to use a term which I hate—‘relevant’ … or we can sit back and try to defend them.”

As for “irrelevant,” it first showed up in writing in the late 18th century, and was mostly used to describe legal depositions, arguments, and proceedings.

One of the OED’s few citations for the adjective used in a general sense is from the essayist Charles Lamb, who wrote in 1823, “A Poor Relation—is the most irrelevant thing in nature.”

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