Tag Archive | Oxford English Dictionary

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.



And the winner is…

Here in my little corner of northeastern New Jersey (the most densely populated area of the nation’s most densely populated state), I guess I live a sheltered life. This is the only explanation I can conjure for having never heard of the newly-proclaimed Oxford 2014 Word of the Year: “vape.” To add to my embarrassment, I have only ever heard of one of the finalists for this prestigious title.

Is “vape” a good choice for 2014? Would you have chosen something different? My vote is for “fractals” (of Frozen fame).

frozen fractals

“To prom,” or “to the prom”—that is the question.

prom word

When I was in high school, no one I knew went “to prom”; we all went “to the prom.” It’s a subtle difference, but to me, it’s a big deal.

Until a few years ago, I never heard of anyone going “to prom.” But then, before class started a few times around 2009 or so, I heard some of my students talking about when they went “to prom.” To top it all off, I noticed that Axl on ABC’s “The Middle” went “to prom,” rather than “to the prom.” Something is rotten at the high school dance.

It never even occurred to me that “prom,” when used as a noun, would lack an article or a possessive pronoun. It just can’t be on its own. When I hear someone say “I’m going to prom,” it sounds to me as though the person is saying “I’m going to dance.” Of course, this is fine if the person is planning to dance (verb); a person can also promenade (verb). However, in all contexts in which I’ve heard “to prom,” it sounds distinctly like a preposition/noun combination, rather than like an infinitive verb.

Since this has been bothering me so much, I took my search to the Oxford English Dictionary.

There, I found the definition of “prom” referring to a dance is this: “A ball or formal dance at a school or college, typically held for the members of a single (typically senior) class near the end of the school year.” And there is NO verb form of “prom”; it is only a noun (not a verb), according to the OED.

However, I found some additional interesting information in the usage section of the “prom” entry: in each instance in which “prom” is cited in the singular from 1879 (when the usage of this colloquial term is first noted in English) through 1972, it is preceded by “the.” However, in the 2001 usage cited in R.B. Parker’s Death in Paradise, the sentence that the OED quotes is this: “I needed a date for senior prom.”

Where did “the” go?


Does anyone know why this happened, or how? Is “the prom” still acceptable, or am I showing that I’m a linguistic dinosaur every time I say “the prom”?

I know that this is a subtle change in English usage, but it’s been bothering me for quite some time. Let’s talk about it!