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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

relatable

(2010’s | teenagese | “engaging,” “relevant,” “familiar,” “accessible,” “personable”)

“Relatable” is one of those expressions thrown up by our younger contingent. (Other examples: “take a chill pill,” “peace out,” “sketchy,” “stoked,” and possibly “love handles” and “no pressure.” “Based off of,” “I know, right?,” and the “because + noun” construction have swept the under-18’s decisively in recent years.) Teachers report periodically new words or phrases bubbling up in the classroom, and “relatable” had its moment somewhere around 2010 and has become widespread since. I certainly did not know the word in 2010, and probably not for three or four years after that. It’s tempting to blame such eruptions on social media, but consumable popular culture for teens has been omnipresent for decades and did not always require Instagram or Tumblr. Once the kids adopt an expression, it has a strong chance of entering the language, because the rest of us spend so much time talking about what they’re up to and what it bodes for the rest of us (ill, generally). Also because some day those kids are going to take over the world, or at least this corner of it.

The teenagers didn’t invent this one, mind you. “Relatable” was available in the early 1980’s, especially in writing on film and television; it meant roughly “agreeable” or “comfortable” — more accurately, “characteristic of something most Americans can identify with” — doubtless descended from “relate to” as used in the sixties. The new sense of the word has hung around ever since, so the teenagers of 2010 had had many opportunities to learn it. The old meaning, “capable of being told,” has grown rare, and we are left with the inescapable fact that “relatable story” means something much different from what it did fifty years ago.

Every teenage addition to our vocabulary calls forth a phalanx of teachers and professors to bewail it, and “relatable” has been written up in The New Yorker, Slate, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among other places. (Ben Zimmer provided a non-judgmental history in the New York Times.) The good professors have a number of reasons for objecting to the term, all of them cogent and stoutly defended. Use of the word proves students self-centered, closed-minded, unwilling to try new things or broaden their horizons. But let’s not forget that the older generation always says as much about the younger, often with justice. It is true that most kids don’t want to do a lot of work to absorb their lessons, and therefore they prefer everyday language, stories, and characters they can understand without effort. But plenty of these same kids will grow up and open out, and it’s no use pretending that this is some unprecedented defect never encountered before millennials stuck a trembling toe into adulthood. Grousing about the rising generation is as old as civilization, at least.

“Relatable” doesn’t always mean likable. When used to talk about everyday situations, it is more likely to connote awkwardness or embarrassment than triumph. You can find collections of mottoes, truisms, and slice-of-life stories all over the web that advertise themselves as relatable. Maybe my sample size isn’t large enough, but I came away with the distinct impression that the most of them have to do with unpleasant contretemps that we try to get past without humiliation. We are all supposed to sympathize and see ourselves in others’ tales of woe, or the nuggets of wisdom acquired from them. Any pleasure we take in such misfortunes is rueful. But we are also to take away the unstated conclusion that those who encounter the same predicaments or feel the same way about etiquette as we do make up the only world that matters — our experience is universal, and everyone else’s? — well, we’ll make room for that around the edges, if we feel like it. “Relatable” is seductive to the extent that it assures us that our group is the center of the universe.

Thanks to that inspirational teacher and observer of the language, Lovely Liz from Queens, for pointing out that this expression needed an airing. I hope I pass.

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