by Florence Sunnen

“The word “relationship” appears for the first time in the 1743 edition of The Denunciad. [Alexander] Pope uses it in a way both funny and cruel to identify his enemy [Colley] Cibber with the insane. Cibber is said to be related to famous heads, sculpted by his father, representing despondent and raving madness. […] Pope calls them Cibber’s “brothers.” Cibber and the heads have the same father; they stand in a blood, brains, “brazen” family “relationship.” The word affects a contemptuous distance between Pope and Cibber and makes Cibber one with the sculpted heads. Funny in its concreteness, cruel in the play of implications, luminous in genius. Before Pope, “relationship” may have been part of daily talk, but until he uses it nothing exists in this way, bearing the lineaments of his mind, the cultural affluence of his self and time.
After 1743, “relationship” appears with increasing frequency, with no joke intended, and it not only survives objections to its redundant structure (two abstract suffixes), but, in the 1940s, it begins to intrude into areas of thought and feeling where it never belonged, gathering a huge constituency of uncritical users and displacing words that at once seemed more appropriate, precise, and pleasing. Among them are “romance,” “affair,” “lover,” “beau,” “fellow,” “girl,” “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “steady date,” etc. People now find these words more or less quaint or embarrassingly innocent. They use “relationship” to mean any of them when talking about the romantic-sexual connection between a man and a woman or a man, or a woman and a woman. In this liberal respect, Pope’s use of the word is uncannily reborn.”


Leonard Michaels – “I’m having Trouble with my Relationship” in: The Essays of Leonard Michaels.