“There is a lot of relativity to that simple sentence.”

The simple sentence in question is not e=mc².

Nor is my student attempting to say a particular sentence has the quality or state of being relative (pertinent to something; not absolute or independent; expressed as a ratio of a quantity to the whole) or is defined by its relation to something else. (Thank you O Webster’s.)

Nor does he mean the value of the sentence depends on the individual reading or writing it.

Nor is the sentence stuffed with kin.

Judging from the context in which the sentence about the simple sentence appeared, my student didn’t actually mean “relativity” at all; he mean “relatability.”

This rather clumsy term means that one idea, situation, person, or word can be related to—or associated or connected with—a second idea, situation, person, or word.  One thing may be “relatable” to another in this sense.

But of course he didn’t mean the simple sentence was relatable to another sentence, idea, situation, etc.

He meant he could relate to the sentence. Or, rather, that the sentence had the ability to be related to by something-or-other.

Gad how I hate that usage! It sits there modestly enough in a sentence, or in a student’s mouth, pretending to be making its contribution to the utterance of a thought. But under that modest exterior lurks a seductive sloven: she (we’ll say, although it’s not fair to women to call “relatable” a female) sends a languid wink of easy pleasure to the struggling writer or speaker and whispers “use me, use me; lie down beside me and let the world go by.”

Students tell me Shakespeare is “relatable”; Beowulf is “relatable”; Sappho is “relatable”; Little Women is “relatable”; Gerard Manley Hopkins is NOT “relatable.” What the hell do they mean? The thing is, they don’t really mean much of anything, or else they might mean just about anything. Shakespeare says some things they feel are true; Beowulf is cool; they “get” Sappho; Little Women made them cry; Hopkins is hard to understand.

Yes, I admit it, at one point my generation became fond of saying “I can relate to that,” a phrase almost as meaningless—but at least it did express a specific attachment between two things (I and that). “That’s relatable” doesn’t even admit that the speaker is part of the relationship; the sentence merely assures us that someone or something might be part of a relationship with that.

The problem with fad words is that, like invasive species of plants or birds or fish, they gradually drive out all the native species, and the variety and beauty and specificity of life is lost. Their progress is insidious, opportunistic, and relentless. One minute you know all the various terms for “information offered,” for instance: comment, response, question, suggestion, idea, proposal, objection, elaboration, evidence…. The next minute you open your mouth and out comes “input.” “Send me your input,” you say. What people will send is anybody’s guess—probably whatever they consider “input.”

When I ask students to elaborate on how something-or-other is “relatable,” they look at me as if I’d asked them to elaborate on what a “pencil” is. You know, the “Well, duh” expression. Or else they ask me what I mean by “elaborate.”

My student was writing about a social activist’s statement that poverty was very hard on children in Central America. My student had done a service project in Central America, and he had seen poverty and its effects in the small village where he had worked. He was commenting that the activist’s simple sentence was expressing something he had also been moved and distressed by, something he too had observed in its complexity and actuality. But of course he didn’t say that; he just said the sentence had “a lot of relativity.” And he thought he had said something. He had earlier told me that he found the topic relatable.

What a tragedy that when he tries to express the passion and compassion he feels, what comes out is four or five syllables of nothing at all.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““There is a lot of relativity to that simple sentence.”

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