It’s all relative, gringo


It’s all relative, you hear it said. Actually I once knew someone who employed the phrase ‘It’s all relevant’, as in: ‘For some people £2,000 is a lot of money but for others it isn’t – it’s all relevant.’

This amusing malapropism is intriguing in its own right. What if her friends began using the word in this incorrect fashion – would its meaning subtly alter? At what point would the use of a word with the wrong meaning applied change its meaning?

It is not a hypothetical case. Few people know what the word ‘officious’ means; I have almost never heard it used correctly in speech. Does that mean the dictionary compilers should change the definition to reflect reality? This would be a pragmatic response, but it would spell the loss of the correct usage, which would be a shame. Our language would be impoverished in a tiny way.

But the phrase ‘it’s all relative/relevant’ came to my mind the other day for reasons other than etymology.

I had a bit of a struggle getting in to London. A tunnel in central London was flooded, and the train I was on terminated early. We had to continue the journey by other means. The nearest Tube station was crowded; the bus stops likewise; no taxis were visible. I walked to the next Tube station, caught a train straight away, but this one came to a halt at the very next stop and asked us to alight, citing a fire problem further down the line. The driver asked us to use ‘alternative means of transport’, which was a challenge as I thought that I had just exhausted them all. In the end, I found a taxi and a one and a half hour journey had taken about three hours.

‘That’s terrible! Pathetic,’ people said. ‘We have a third world transport system in this country!’ The reference to the ‘third world’ called to mind a story I once heard about commuting in Bolivia and I recalled that, in relative terms, we are luckier than we will ever know.

A friend of mine (I would love to claim the anecdote personally, but honesty constrains me) was travelling on a single-coach train high up in the Andes. It was one of those converted-bus type arrangements, with no separate driver’s cabin, affording panoramic views for passengers. It was taking peasant women back home from a town some 100 miles away where they had gone on a weekly trip to try to sell their home-grown produce.

Now the driver, for reasons that were not immediately apparent, asked a ten-year-old boy, probably his son, to lie outside on the bonnet, strapped on, face down staring at the oncoming tracks. From time to time, the boy would slap the metal bonnet hard, upon which the driver came to a halt.

The boy had spotted an obstruction left by some terrorist group operating in the area. Everyone, passengers and driver alike, descended and helped clear the tracks. This occurred six or seven times as the train ascended slowly up the mountain, the boy requiring more and more layers each time he returned to his bonnet and the temperature dropped.

Near the top of the climb, the train started to encounter other hazards. Rock falls were covering part of the track. Again, everyone got out to help clear the stones and boulders so the vehicle could proceed. Eventually, however, they came across a landslide too substantial to be shifted by human hands. The driver announced that he would park the coach there and they would complete the journey on foot – a distance of some ten miles.

My friend – an intrepid traveller who found the episode fascinating – joined the Bolivian peasant women, with their huge bags, heavy babies and bowler hats, as they hiked over stone and ice to reach their destination. As he did so, he managed to overhear snatches of conversation. He expected to hear moans and complaints, but instead he heard phrases such as ‘Not so bad, was it?’ and ‘Better than last week’.

In a similar vein, I once heard of an English athletics promoter accompanying some Kenyan athletes to a race. The flight was delayed and on reaching Victoria station he realised he had missed the last train. In a panic, he explained this to the athletes. They promptly crouched down and said that they would wait for the first one in the morning. ‘But that’s another six hours!’ he said. They shrugged their shoulders as if to say ‘Is that all?’

We don’t, as they say, know we’re born. We certainly do not, in relative terms, have any serious problems getting to work or otherwise moving about our country, other than those created by our own expectations.

The next time you are stuck in traffic, or waiting for a train, and cursing the Government, Network Rail or professor Beeching, remember the tale of the Bolivian women. It is relevant.


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