Jane E. Wohl writes: “I have noticed among my students a growing use of the word ‘relatable,’ as in ‘I like Sarah Palin. She’s relatable’ (meaning, ‘I can relate to her’). Do you know the origins of this usage? It turns the verb ‘to relate to’ into a very odd adjective.”
Applying the word relatable to someone or something you can relate to is a modern peculiarity, but it’s not wholly without precedent. The usage draws on a meaning of relate to (“to understand, to empathize with, to feel a connection with”) that is itself rather new, recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary only since 1947 — first showing up in the literature of social work and childhood education.
When this touchy-feely use of relate to took off in the ’60s, the adjective form relatable also made its appearance. (Before that, relatable more predictably meant “able to be related”: a relatable story is one that can be told.) A 1965 article in the education journal Theory Into Practice showcased the new meaning when it detailed research findings that “boys saw teachers as more directive, while girls saw them as more ‘relatable.’ ”
From educational circles relatability eventually spread to television programming, where the concept flourished. In 1981, the game-show host Bob Eubanks told The Washington Post that “The Newlywed Game” featured “relatable humor, the kind that takes place in every home.” The following year, The New York Times quoted a press release for the syndicated series “Couples”: “The real difficulties, conflicts and problems of married, dating, living-together and divorced couples rival any type of fictional format for personal and relatable drama.”
“Couples” was an early example of reality television, a genre that plays on viewers’ feelings of identification and empathy. But TV executives would come to demand relatability in their dramas and sitcoms as well. By 2006, a Times profile of the new CW network could joke about the creakiness of the cliché: “Someday, there will be an article about television in which no executive uses the word ‘relatable,’ industry jargon for something with which viewers are supposed to identify or connect. Alas, this is not that article.”
Now that relatable is creeping into more mainstream usage, especially among younger speakers, it’s raising eyebrows. Some people object to how the word is formed, because it differs from most adjectives ending in -able. Usually the suffix -able attaches to a transitive verb: an enjoyable movie is one you can enjoy, a catchable ball is one you can catch and so forth. But relate in this case is intransitive, and the object of “relate to (someone)” is locked in a prepositional phrase. Shouldn’t it be relate-to-able?
The very same objection was once made about a word that we now find utterly commonplace: reliable. Beginning in the mid-19th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, language commentators criticized reliable as a vile abomination, because it should technically mean “able to be relied,” not “able to be relied on.” Thomas De Quincey attacked Samuel Coleridge for using the negative version, unreliable, suggesting unrelyuponable as a “more correct” alternative.
Defenders of reliable pointed out that we have no trouble omitting the prepositions in laughable (“able to be laughed at”), dependable (“able to be depended on”), or indispensable (“unable to be dispensed with”). Just as reliable seemed novel and strange more than a century ago, relatable doesn’t sound quite right to many observers today. Over time, though, the word may move from laughable to indispensable.
Ben Zimmer, New York Times