First let me admit that one of my current crusades is to stamp out the phrase “relate to.” Particularly in literature classes, its use is pervasive and daunting: “I can relate to Hamlet.” “The Canterbury Tales is hard to relate to because it’s written in Old [sic] English.” “I can relate to the Puritans but they were wrong about witches.” “Beowulf brags too much to be relatable.” Oh, please!
One of my students even coined (or repurposed?) a noun to express this concept: “relativity.” No, nothing to do with Einstein; just a variant form of “relatability,” evidently. (Nice to see that Spellcheck thinks “relatability” is something-or-other misspelled , not a real word…)
You can follow either of the links in the above sentences for fully-deployed RAB expressions of despair.
And now, Class, we turn our attention to friend Don, that possibly-universally-relatable chap. I wish I had recorded which of Don’s many “troubling” moments my student was referring to here, but perhaps that doesn’t matter: it was something most, if not all, of us would see ourselves in, understand, associate with our own experience, want to associate ourselves with, or whatever “relate to” means….
Is Don some friend of my student’s? A sibling of hers? Or perhaps someone famous, so famous that only his first name is needed for identification? Or, uh, a character in a play, named simply “Don”? (So many modern plays name their characters “Man” and “Woman” that “Don No-Last-Name” seems at least possible.)
Do you have a moment? Would you like to read a little about a famous composer named Bay?
So, if you went there, you will have read another RAB rant, this one about calling people by their first names even if they’re strangers to you, authority figures, or famous writers or composers. I’m trying to stamp that practice out, too, of course.
Furthermore, the lover of Bay compounded the informality with lack of knowledge, mistaking the first syllable of his surname for his given name, almost the same error my student makes with Don.
All this is mere preamble to the astonishing Don.
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Part II of one of western literature’s most famous and important works of fiction, and this is being celebrated by many groups, in many ways. For example, Dickinson College, my alma mater, has been celebrating it with a read-in and some festive campus and international events. Now you’ve guessed who Don is, haven’t you?
Yes, Don Quixote. Hero of Don Quixote. Good old Don.
What my student didn’t realize is that Don is, of course, not the gentleman’s given name, but his TITLE. Alonso Quixano, voracious reader, longs for the life of bygone knights errant; this member of the Spanish minor aristocracy therefore renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, persuades a tenant farmer to serve as his Squire, and sets off into the world he manages to imaginatively recreate as the land of his dreams, with various touching successes and howling disasters as the consequence. “Don Quixote” would be, in English, pretty much “Lord Quixote.” And nobody refers to George Gordon, Lord Byron, as “Lord,” any more than people refer to Alfred, Lord Tennyson as “Alfred Lord.” Well, nobody I’ve met yet, I hasten to qualify.
Should my student have known that “Don” is an honorific, not a name? Yes, I believe she should have. She should at least have noticed that in class I did not once refer to this character as “Don.” But since she knew the word “Don” already—perhaps does have a friend or relative of that name—she didn’t really think about it, either whether she should call this man “Don” or whether “Don” even sounded like a Spanish first name! She plunged into the assigned reading without looking at the textbook’s Introduction, noticing the book’s setting, or in any way considering that there was anything about the book that made it different from her own world. And THEN, having mistaken “Don” for the character’s first name, she proceeded to assume sufficient intimacy with him to call him by it—throughout a paper that supposedly discussed this literary work in an academic way.
The culture of the world in which we live, move, and have our being has changed a lot in the last few decades, and traditions of formality, conventions of academic writing, and various kinds of awareness seem to be falling by the wayside. This means that those of us for whom those things still have significance are more and more frequently disconcerted; it also means that consciousness of those concepts is disappearing and the young people of today may find themselves unable to understand more and more of the literature and life of the past. This is what I fear, anyway.
Well, I’m writing this post partly to celebrate the amazing fact that today my blog’s following reached, and passed, 8000. I’m amazed and grateful! (If it pleases you to do so, you may consider the tour of links throughout this post a kind of happy dance, or pilgrimage…)
So maybe I’m not tilting at verbal windmills alone. Maybe Don and I have 8000+ fellow warriors.
September 15th, 2015 at 2:35 pm
I can relate to this. *ducks*
September 15th, 2015 at 3:37 pm
Ah, Susan P! You live dangerously! ;-}
September 15th, 2015 at 4:31 pm
I just always wondered that originated. It just sounds labored.
September 15th, 2015 at 2:47 pm
I assumed it was Don Draper.
September 15th, 2015 at 3:52 pm
Note that Don Draper co-starred with Jerry Lacey in the Allenberry production of The Odd Couple. I knew them both (a little) there.
September 15th, 2015 at 3:38 pm
I don’t watch Mad Men, actually…and to compound my confusion, I did know a Don Draper back when I was doing summer stock! Liked him. I hope he hasn’t had a lot of troubling moments (MY Don, not MM Don).
September 15th, 2015 at 3:43 pm
Dear ol’ Don. How is he doing these days? How about Jane? (Can I at least assume intimacy with Ms. Austen?) On second thought, perhaps if I do, I’ll do it well away from your blogging ears! 😉
September 15th, 2015 at 3:54 pm
Next time you talk to Jane, do tell her “Hey!” from me!
September 15th, 2015 at 4:07 pm
I’ll be sure to send your regards in my next letter to her. And I expect she’ll soon send her regards your way as well.
September 15th, 2015 at 6:15 pm
To reach the impossible star 😉
September 19th, 2015 at 9:32 am
I’m having a hard time relating to this!
September 19th, 2015 at 5:24 pm
Ah, clearly you are one of the “not all” people. Good for you!
September 21st, 2015 at 10:33 am
This use of “relate to” was not invented by the current generation of students. I remember a lawyer friend of mine in the 70’s laughing about hearing a lawyer arguing in a federal court of appeals say: “I can’t relate to the government’s argument.”
September 21st, 2015 at 10:47 am
You’re absolutely right. So you see my crusade has a long way to go! When I first heard students “relating to” things I thought it was just a quirk…then, a speech fad that would pass…thus terrible things creep slowly in, and by the time we realize they’re taking over, there are too many of them!
September 21st, 2015 at 7:33 pm
(Be happy she didn’t try to connect him with The Donald?)
“Relating: should be sent back to family reunions and genealogy. (Hands over ears and loud “La-la-la-la’s”)
September 21st, 2015 at 7:36 pm
No need for the “La La”s. I’m with you. “The Austen family reunion? I can relate to that,” said Jane!
September 22nd, 2015 at 2:25 am
All I know about DON is my friend who we call don as he’s always so filmy and loud :p
I would really appreciate if you would follow my blog.
September 24th, 2015 at 11:08 am
Love this! I have definitely been “relating to” without realizing it. Thanks for the lesson!
October 1st, 2015 at 10:39 pm
The trendy phrases invade our vocabularies when we aren’t watching, and devour all the words they hope to replace. Join the fight against them! (Thanks for your visit and comment.)
October 20th, 2015 at 1:56 pm
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