I Just Can’t Relate: February Phraseology Fix

One of the sentences I dread most when reading my students’ papers:  “This character is very relatable.”  Can anyone tell me what this actually means?

In order to solve this conundrum, I have turned to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The word “relatable,” an adjective, has several meanings.

The oldest meaning, first noted in 1621, is “able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating.” This meaning pertains to storytelling.

The second meaning, first noted in 1868, is “able to be brought into relation with something else; capable of being related or connected (to something).” This usage pertains to relationships, but it requires some specificity. Specifically, it mandates that the relationship be spelled out.

The newest meaning, first noted in 1965, is “that can be related to; with which one can identify or empathize.” In the examples the OED provides, the earlier examples show specific definitions of how and why the elements are relatable—the first even places the word “relatable” in quotes! The 1965 example reads: “The research indicated that boys saw teachers as more directive, while girls saw them as more ‘relatable.’” The 1981 example from the Washington Post includes a definition, in context: “It’s relatable humor, the kind that takes place in every home.” By the time we arrive at in 2007, the year of the final example, which hails from the New York Times Magazine, we see a looser usage: “This is what’s going on in sex and in college right now, and these are real people, and you’re more relatable if you’re a real person. And when I read this 2007 sentence, I’m left wondering: “relatable TO WHAT”? Luckily for me, the New York Times Magazine sentence provides me with some context clues. I can reasonably infer that the “relatable” person understands what’s going on in the real world.

However, in everyday conversations (in class and in the “real world”) and often in writing, I hear and see references to a person or thing being “relatable,” and I am absolutely unable to determine to what the entity is said to be relatable, or why. It seems to me that we’ve become very sloppy in our usage of the third, newest, and most elusive meaning of “relatable.”

So, my advice about this neologism is to use it with tremendous care. Clarity in communication is paramount: in fact, clarity of expression is the main point of communication! So, if your reason for seeing a relationship between two things is not clear, don’t just bandy about the term “relatable”—please! Think the relationship through. If the context of your use of “relatable” will help to enlighten your reader as to your meaning, then feel free to use “relatable.” But, if not, find a different and more precise way to express your idea. Otherwise, no one will be able to relate to the idea you’re trying to express.

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