Like so many other neologisms, this one arrived by stealth and then took over. I first noticed it about three years ago, in several of the online postings I require for literature classes. “I like the plot,” went this sort of comment, “but I just don’t find the main character relatable.”
For a while I chalked the term up to clumsy language use. The students meant that they could not identify themselves with, or “relate to,” Bigger Thomas or Daisy Buchanan. I don’t grade these postings on their syntax or argument; the point is to draw out the shy students and to acquire some basis for discussion between class sessions.
Then the term leapt the abyss between casual posts and academic papers. “In terms of the relatability of Munro’s characters. … ”; “Though Forster’s premise is clever, his story is not very relatable”; “A major achievement in Updike’s prose is its relatableness”; “Initially, an unrelatable protagonist like Bigger Thomas challenges conventional mores.” Bring any one of those sentences to a department meeting and witness a collective groan, quickly followed by lamentations over spell check. Curiously, however, neither that device nor Microsoft Word’s simplistic dictionary is to blame. When I typed “relatability,” my computer kindly changed it to “reliability.” Other uses attract the red underline of incorrectness except for “relatable,” which is defined by Word as “relevant,” its other synonyms being “applicable,” “related,” “important,” and “significant.”
But my student is not attacking the relevance of Forster’s fiction or praising the significance of Updike’s. Nor is she taking up the more obvious metaphysical challenge, e.g., Is it simply not possible to relate the character of Bigger Thomas? Is Bigger’s refusal to be summed up in narrative the very thing that, say, challenges our mores? Sadly, no. That is not what she is attempting.
“What does this word mean?” I have asked more than one student.
The question puzzles them. “Well, it’s obvious. ‘Relatable.’ Written so that, like, you can relate to it.”
I don’t believe that this neologism is accidental or attributable to anything particular in pop culture or cyberusage. Rather, it seems predicated on the consumer emphasis that haunts the halls of academe. That we want to inculcate critical thinking and our students want us to guarantee them a white-collar job means we have not met the demands of our consumers and must change. That an author like Herman Melville wants to challenge our understanding of the human condition and our students want to find a character like themselves in Moby-Dick means that Melville must change … or be dropped from the syllabus.
This trend, as many have noted, is dangerous to the forward momentum of learning and inquiry. Literature endures because it presents us with a world entire. Persuasion does not need my student Bill’s ability to relate to it in order to achieve greatness. The magic happens when Bill brings himself out of his small orbit and enters Austen’s world.
Does that magic lie within Austen’s power? In part, yes: the author can deploy her understanding of the human condition to create rounded characters at pivotal moments in their lives. But the power lies also with Bill. That’s why a posting that reads “I just can’t relate to this guy Darcy” has more learning potential than the posting “Darcy is unrelatable.” In the former case, we as teachers can press Bill on his position; we can help him stretch his sense of self and his imagination to enter Darcy’s world. In the latter, we are left with an unanswerable, indeed a nonsensical, criticism. This difference also suggests the perniciousness of “relatable” as it moves from casual posting to academic paper. Students know better than to insert their personal opinions (“I just can’t relate to … ”) into formal papers. As a result, they rely even more forcefully on the supposedly “objective” criterion of “relatability,” and teachers who grow weary will begin to accept a fallacious and dangerous premise.
As with all neologisms, the more we see it, the more we accept it, and the more we accept it, the more we see it. For plenty of new words, this evolution is necessary, even fun (think “Google” as a verb). For “relatable,” well, I can’t relate to it.