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Thursday, September 20, 2012

My Feelings Relating to the Word "Relatable"

One of my favorite classes to teach at the high school where I spend my work days is a non-fiction writing class in which my students, all juniors and seniors, spend the semester learning how to write eloquent, concise, engaging personal essays, developing a compelling writing voice of their own. In addition to writing their own essays, they read personal essays by pros and write about their response to those essays.

The last time I taught this class was the first time I came across the word "relatable" in my students' writing. A student or two described the voice or tone or topic of an essay we'd read as "relatable." My reaction to this word was negative, but it didn't seem like a big deal, since it didn't come up more than a couple times. I may have mentioned the word to my students, and if I did, I may have told them that it's not a real word. I may not have. I don't remember. I certainly remember thinking "That is not actually a word, and if it were... feh."

That was a couple years ago, and now I'm teaching the class again. And in the first response paper I collected, where students responded to several essays of their own choosing, I came across the word "relatable" at least a dozen times. One student, normally a clear, precise, and confident writer, used the word a total of four times in a two-page paper.

I've been an English teacher long enough to know that before I make some pronouncement before my class, along the lines of "That's not a real word" or "The correct pronunciation is...," I need to check my sources. The English language is vast, complex, and ever-changing. We are fortunate to have a gigantic vocabulary at our disposal, and our words come from every corner of the globe, with new ones being added and old ones morphing into new ones all the time.

So I looked up "relatable" and found that it is indeed in the dictionary. Of course it's in the dictionary, because it is in fact a word. It means "able to be related." Like a story. But that's not how my students are using it. They mean "able to be related to." And according to my beloved ginormo desk dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th edition), that's not the definition. "Relatable" is just there at the end of the entry for "relate," meaning that the AHDEL defines it my way, not my students' way.

Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, however, backs up the young'uns:

re·lat·a·ble/riˈlātəbəl/ Adjective: 1. Able to be related to something else. 2. Enabling a person to feel that they can relate to someone or something: "Kate's problems make her more relatable."

Why do I hate this word? It's not the very fact of turning a verb into a noun. "Debatable" is fine, as is "dependable" and "deniable." Partly it's the preposition thing. To relate something is very different than to relate to something, and part of me thinks that therein lies my issue.

But no. I'm not normally picky in that way. It is a little ugly to cram "to relate to" into an "able" ajective. But it's more than that.

I think my problem is an assumption that underlies the word: that if this character, this person, this being has something very obvious in common with me, I can "relate to" him, her, it, and thus I can validate him, her, or it. And if we have nothing in common that I can see from a cursory glance, then I might just feel that this voice isn't speaking to me. And I find that a bit solipsistic and shallow.

In fact, there's a better word that we English teachers have been promoting for years that fits the "relatable" bill but is less vapid and dependent on the reader's (or viewer's or listener's) experience and worldview being replicated by the art in question. It's "sympathetic." The question of whether we can sympathize with a character, with a writer, with a voice is a much larger one, and (I would argue) enables a more sophisticated and a more outward-looking conversation.

Perhaps need to promote sympathy as a better lens through which to evaluate writing than "relatability." And perhaps we need to have a conversation about other, more specific, less flabby words that fit into the big baggy mess that is "relatable." But I begin by rejecting the word.

I do not relate.


Blogger Chelsea Findlay said...

I'm with you... I think that the word, if given any at all, should be the first: able to be related. As in, Mozart is relatable to Haydn. But then, I suppose we always have the word "comparable", and that solves the issue as far as that's concerned.

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Blogger Jim Henry said...

I stumbled across your blog because I, too, teach English, on a college level, and this word has been showing up more frequently in the past year, so I decided to see what the deal is. To be sure, there are other words that could accomplish what relatable does, but the question I have, is the word so wrong that a student should lose points in an assignment for choosing that word over another? I still do not know.

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Blogger Liam Broadhurst said...

You teachers... So pedantic...

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I, too, have been experiencing this phenomenon in my AP Language and Composition course. I have had almost an identical

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