Tag Archives: relatable

“It’s agreeable that kids are always using their phones or electronics.”

Maybe you find it agreeable. I find it depressing, frustrating, irritating, frightening. Not “pleasing to the mind or senses,” as my old friend Webster assures me “agreeable” means.

I’m going to skip over the other problem in the sentence, the word “electronics”—a branch of physics, Mr. Webster says, that deals with “the emission, behavior, and effects of electrons and with electronic devices” or “of, relating to, or utilizing devices constructed or working by the methods or principles of electronics.” My student means neither of these things: he means electronic devices. And he doesn’t mean all of them; he means those that kids are always using—especially iPhones and iPads. I have other students who refer to such electronic devices merely as “devices,” and I wonder what they think when a professor tells students that for their final project they will be “left to their own devices.” Actually, a hallway sign at one of my schools admonishes students to “be considerate of others: use your devices in the stairways, not the hallways.” My imagination runs, predictably, wild at what must be going on out there, considering the hundreds of possible “devices” our society has to offer…

What I do want to talk about is that wonderful word “agreeable.” Of course I knew what he meant: He agrees, or is willing to agree, that kids are always using their phones etc. Is he trying to cope with the taboo-ification of using “I” in writing? That is not a taboo I impose, although I do say I don’t want to see them refer to themselves as the writer or opinor (sorry for the coinage) in an essay (“I think,” “I know,” “It is my opinion that,” “I feel,” “I truly agree that,” “I sincerely believe”…). Phrases like this are redundant with the unspoken premise of every argument: “I think that…” They also reinforce the writer’s feeling of authority and thereby seduce her to believe she has proved something rather than merely asserting it. So I would be one of the professors who did NOT want this student to write “I agree that kids are always etc.” But I have no problem with “I” when the writer is offering his own experience as evidence or example, and so I would have been perfectly happy with “I have seen hallways full of kids using their phones while walking to class,” for instance. Still, if he was trying to avoid writing “I,” I am willing to sympathize, albeit not to forgive.

Quite simply, he has forced a word to mean something most people would not expect or immediately grasp. “Agreeable”=”pleasant.” “Agreeable” might also = “ready or willing to assent or consent,” or even “in harmony.” Normal readers would try to understand the sentence in terms of one of these meanings. Normal readers would therefore be confused.

Or maybe by “normal” I mean “older than 20.” I’m afraid “agreeable” may be sneaking into the lexicon in the same way that “relatable” has. Now, Webster’s does include “relatable” as a form under the definition of “relate”; no such listing yet exists for “agreeable.” (Interestingly, WordPress’s spell-checker doesn’t recognize relatable as a word. Bravo!) But not that many of my students have as yet inflicted the new “agreeable” on me. Hundreds now have subjected me to “relatable.” I’ve written about that already, at length; here I mention only that it is close to meaningless in statements like “Hamlet is relatable” and “Gawain and the Green Knight is relatable.”

I use Webster’s as my base dictionary reference for this blog partly because it focuses on contemporary usage and partly because it is so widely and easily available to college students. I have the OED at home and use it for my own work, especially in my field of choice (Elizabethan and Jacobean drama); but its historic wonders and etymological subtleties aren’t generally to the point when dealing with student writing. Of course one of the most dramatic aspects of the OED is its revelation of shifts and changes in a living language. And I know contemporary usage continues that drama. But, like the plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, loving them as a group doesn’t mean I have to actually love, or advocate, any single one. The same is true for changes in the language. Some I find fascinating; some I lustily embrace; some, like “agreeable” and “relatable” in the hands or “devices” of my students, I loathe, and will fight against as long as there is ink in my pen.


“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.