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In the following sentence I prefer saying relatives but I am unable to explain why.

It's going to be a small wedding. Only a few friends and relatives have been invited

On doing research I found that both nouns can be collocated after the following adjectives; distant, blood, and close.

We also have the phrase:

Friends and relations 307,000 results
Friends and relatives 1,210,000 results

Judging from the Google Ngram graph below it looks like the former was more commonly used in BrEng and is becoming increasingly rare.

Ngram chart indicates since the 1940s the steady decrease of the expression "friends and relations" compared to "friends and relatives" in BrEng

I can't even say that friends and relations is an old fashioned BrEng expression because according to CDO (set at American English) for relation it offers this example of usage:

On our trip, we visited friends and relations on both sides of the family.

In TFD relation is defined thus;

n. 2. The connection of people by blood or marriage; kinship. 3. A person connected to another by blood or marriage; a relative.

Relative n. One related by kinship, common origin, or marriage.

Is there any difference in usage? Are both terms interchangeable? Are relatives and relations, truly synonymous when referring to family members?

EDIT
I would like to expand my question and ask:

  • What is the difference between relations and relatives when talking about family?
  • Is relations a word that is becoming out-of-date, or as @WS2 commented, is it the "downmarket" version of relatives in BrEng?
  • Does the term relatives sound more intimate and meaningful compared to relations as suggested by @Kris?
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So far as the UK is concerned I would have said that 'relations' was a bit 'downmarket' of 'relatives'. More literate people I suspect would be more inclined to use 'relatives'. But that is by no means hard and fast, and it is also something for which I have no formal evidence. Vast numbers of people will use both, sometimes, perhaps, it depending on to whom they are speaking. –  WS2 Nov 7 '13 at 10:21
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Generally I would use relations when thinking of that class of people who are related to me and relatives when I have the individuals (several) from that class in mind. We invite friends and relations to all major functions at home; We had a few friends and relatives calling on us last week. This is a comment because it may not be the usual or standard way the expressions are thought of. –  Kris Nov 7 '13 at 13:15

9 Answers 9

up vote 6 down vote accepted
+100

My speculation is that "relations" now carries a rather negative connotation. The most common use of "relations" that I can think of is of a sexual nature. Usually, trying to sound more tactful, media and other outlets will basically use this type of terminology over anything more direct.

I personally would not feel comfortable using this word for this reason alone.

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@Mari-Lou A - I think J.R. gave a great answer. However, I think of relations as user3306356 does. I am not BrE, however. –  medica Apr 15 at 0:46
    
+1 "I personally would not feel comfortable using this word for this reason alone." –  IQAndreas Apr 18 at 5:14
    
When I think back to why I did not prefer to use the term relations in my original sentence, it had nothing to do with its perceived sexual nature. I didn't feel uncomfortable reading that word, instead it was a question of "frequency", relations = relatives is a word that I hear less and less nowadays, and that is also true in BrEng. Your answer, helped explain to me this evident decline in usage. A few hard facts and figures would have been very much appreciated, (and made my awarding the bounty easier) but I am quite satisfied. Thank you. –  Mari-Lou A Apr 20 at 20:08

Sometimes two words can be perfectly suitable synonyms, but we tend to stick with more familiar phrasings when they are put into familiar expressions. Here's one example:

friends and enemies, friends and foes, friends and adversaries
Ngram: friends and enemies (blue), friends and foes (red), friends and adversaries (green)

If you add pals and adversaries to that search, the Ngram won't return any results, and Google only finds a scant 37 instances of pals and adversaries on the web. There's no reason a less-trite pals and adversaries couldn't be used, except some authors may prefer a more familiar expression.

The same can go for the ordering of words in familiar expressions:

enter image description here Ngram: ladies and gentlemen (blue), gentlemen and ladies (red)

Obviously, there's no difference in meaning between ladies and gentlemen and gentlemen and ladies, but one sounds more familiar, which makes the other sound more jarring in some contexts.

You're right to point out that friends and relations seems more rare in American English; I can't recall hearing that wording, but friends and relatives seems as common and well-worn as ladies and gentlemen.

With all that in mind, here's how I would rule:

Is there any difference in usage? No – although one may be more common than the other, especially geographically.

Are both terms interchangeable? Insofar as I can tell, yes. If you used one wording instead of the other, I don't think anyone would feel slighted, and I don't imagine you'd be written out of any wills.

Are relatives and relations, perhaps, truly synonymous when referring to family members? "Truly synonymous" is a loaded term; I would feel more comfortable saying that they are "largely synonymous." There may be certain contexts where one word would be more fitting than the other, but I'm having trouble thinking of one off the top of my head.

Is there any difference between “a few relatives” and “a few relations”? I suppose not, although, due to additional definitions of each word, a few relations could be construed to mean “a few of my relationships” instead of “a few of my relatives,” if there's not enough context to disambiguate, as in: a few relations have been stressed lately.

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I fail to see the parallel between "friends and relations" with its respectable 307,000 results and, using your example, "gentlemen and ladies". I also made very clear the context, it is a small wedding so how could "a few relations" be possibly misinterpreted to mean a few of my relationships is beyond me! :) Friends and relatives sound better to my ear, and I'm glad you confirm it, but when are we more likely to use the term, relations in favour of relatives? Is there a discernible difference in meaning? –  Mari-Lou A Nov 7 '13 at 22:29
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Yes, a small wedding would provide enough context to get the meaning across, but the 3-word phrase in isolation could mean something else. After all, the news often speaks of strained international relations, e.g. As for your other questions, I don't think I'd ever use relations instead of relatives, but, after consulting the dictionaries, I can't say your usage would be "wrong," and there may be some places where it would sound quite natural. Sorry I can't help you any more than that. –  J.R. Nov 7 '13 at 23:31

In the Law of Wills, "relatives" are legitimate and "relations" are related by blood whether lacking legitimacy or not:

Source

The popular meaning of the word "relatives" or "relations" is that of all persons within any degree whatever of consanguinity or affinity. But when the word "relations" is used in a will to denote a class of beneficiaries, it is settled that the law imposes a technical meaning and not the popular one. The primary meaning of "relatives" or "relations" is, such persons as would take under the statutes of descent and distribution if testator had died intestate. ...

The primary meaning of "relatives," of course, imports legitimacy. But this meaning may be extended by the context. Thus certain persons who were related to testator by blood, but were illegitimates, were referred to by him in his will as "cousins." It was held that these persons could take under a bequest to testator's "relatives hereinbefore named," especially since the bequest to these "relatives" would be a bequest to one person only, if the illegitimate relations were excluded.

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The only example I can find where the two are not interchangeable is in the expression no relation". When two people have the same surname but there is no family tie, the words no relation are often inserted e.g. G. Smith, K. Smith (no relation). It is used to negate, to separate, not to link.

In French, the word relations exists, but it means contacts in a general sense. Ce sont des cousins appears to be the best translation of "these are my relatives" even when they're not cousins. Might this partly explain the lesser intimacy perceived by some in the word relations? And the propinquity of the term sexual relations might alienate others. Could the word relationship play a role in distancing relations from us. A relationship seems less solid and enduring than a marriage, viz Facebook status "in a relationship".

All in all, of the two words, relatives seems to me to have the more clearly defined contours and, as such, less likely to be misunderstood.

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The fact is that the term relations is ambiguous in American English. Relations can mean people in your family, it can mean people that you have had relationships with, and it could mean people that you have had sex with. It is often used as an innuendo for sex.

Usage: "So what's up with Liz and you? Have you guys had relations?"

So that is issue number one. Even my grandma understands that relations can mean sex. So people steer clear of the word for that.

Second issue is that when relations is used to mean family it is most likely the south and more often than not rural areas. Using the word might seem a little hillbilly-ish to some. I still have family I visit in the south that might use it but they would also work it into sexual jokes.

So a "few relatives" is really clear but having a "few relations", not so much. Relatives sharing relatives, is obvious... relations sharing relations, not a good thing.

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But in the example "It's going to be a small wedding. Only a few friends and relations have been invited" Does that sound folksy to your ears? Would it still sound ambiguous? Thanks to the answers posted so far, I have understand the word, "relations", by itself is more often than not collocated with sex and that is probably the greatest (and for me the most surprising) difference between the two terms. –  Mari-Lou A Apr 18 at 6:53
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@Mari-LouA - In that particular context I don't think relations would be taken as sexual partners. It is extremely folksy though. I would expect a barn dance reception (which I have been to). –  RyeɃreḁd Apr 18 at 15:53

The editors of The Oxford Learner's Thesaurus (2008) argue that even though sometimes they are interchangeable, relative is often used "when the exact relationship between the people is not known or does not matter," whereas relation is used "especially when you are stating or asking the degree of relationship between people."

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My understanding of the nuance is that relatives are 1-2 degrees of separation (sibling/parent/cousin/uncle/aunt/grandparent/in-laws) while relations are more than 2 degrees of separation (second+ cousin, spouse's uncle/aunt etc).

I would speculate that this stems from 'relations' being a more formal word, representative of the greater social distance. The decline in the use of the word I would expect if this nuance holds. Firstly because as countries modernise the social bonds between extended family become less necessary, so interfacing with 'relations' occurs more infrequently. Secondly because there is a trend away from older and/or more formal forms of language over time as they are (depending on perspective) supplanted or besmirched by subsequent generations.

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I've never heard that distinction (two degrees of separation vs. more than two) before. Can you cite it? –  toryan Apr 14 at 5:21
    
No, it is an understanding based on its use by people around me, so I only know it as oral tradition. Sorry. Any searching for it in written form is massively clouded by '6 degrees of separation' and associated bumpf. –  Sam Apr 15 at 19:19

I have never seen friends and relatives written on invitations. The most commonly used phrase is Friends and Family.

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My question does not ask which expression is most appropriate for an invitation, but if it did, I would nevertheless consider family too broad compared to either a few (close) friends and relatives/relations –  Mari-Lou A Apr 17 at 20:20
    
This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post - you can always comment on your own posts, and once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post. –  Ronan Apr 18 at 14:59

How I understand it, relatives are those individuals to whom one is tied to by blood or marriage.

For example, one's parents, siblings, husbands, wives and so on would qualify for "relatives".

"Relations" on the other hand, those individuals to whom we may have a sort of relationship, be it close or not, are not members of our families through blood or marital connections.

Take for example the following: we have sexual relationships between lovers, countries around the world share political and/or historical relationships, and of course, there are also client/customer relationships. These relationships commonly use the term "relations". Considering this aspect, it seems as though "relations" would not qualify in the same way, or degree of closeness, as "relatives" when talking about family.

Based on today's societal use and understanding, I would say both could be used as synonyms for each other depending, of course, upon the surrounding context.

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