The Grammarphobia Blog

Relational therapy

Q: Could one use either “related” or “relayed” in the following sentence? “Scott had already related to Ivan what Russ had said in Baton Rouge about the gathering at Fred’s apartment.”

A: Yes, both verbs, “relate” and “relay,” can be used in that sentence, though “relay” is more precise.

“Relate” means, among other things, to tell something to someone, while “relay” here means to pass information from one person along to another.

These are the relevant definitions from Oxford Dictionaries online, one of the standard, or general, dictionaries we regularly consult:

Relate: “Give an account of (a sequence of events); narrate,” as in “various versions of the chilling story have been related by the locals.”

Relay: “Receive and pass on (information or a message),” as in “she intended to relay everything she had learned.”

In your sentence, Scott does both—he tells something to someone, as well as passing along something said by someone else. In other words, he “relates” something and “relays” it.

Either verb is correct, but “relay” would emphasize the “passing along” sense.

Both “relate” and “relay” showed up in the 15th century, but it took hundreds of years for “relay” to take on the sense we’re talking about, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a historical dictionary that traces the evolution of words.

The OED says “relate” is derived from the Middle French relater (to report or recount) and the classical Latin referre (to bring back, report, recall, and other senses). The Latin verb combines re- (back) and ferre (carry).

When “relate” showed up in English in the late 1400s it meant “to be brought or put between two things,” but that sense is now considered rare or obsolete, according to the OED.

The verb soon took on the sense we’re discussing: “to recount, narrate, give an account of (actions, events, facts, etc.”), Oxford says.

The earliest known citation, the OED says, is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I wolde nat relate the mater otherwyse than I herde it for all the good in the worlde.”

The verb “relay” is an adaptation of the Middle French relayer, meaning to change hounds during a hunt. When it appeared in English in the early 15th century, the OED says, it meant to “release a set of hounds in a chase, esp. after a previous set has passed.”

The dictionary has several examples of this now-obsolete usage from Master of the Game (circa 1425), a book about hunting by Edward, Duke of York. All the citations refer to deer hunting, including this one: “Digby relaye his houndes vpon þe fues” (“Digby relayed his hounds upon the scent”).

The sense of “relay” that you’re asking about showed up in the mid-19th century.

The earliest example in the OED is from My Thirty Years Out of the Senate (1859), a collection of fictional letters written by Seba Smith, a New England newspaper publisher and political satirist: “A young boy stands by the table relaying a message to the man.”

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