Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Relatable: Victim of Semantic Drift

Ah, another victim of semantic drift: relatable. It's not a very common word, if you can read the numbers on the left. The top of the scale is 0.00001300%. So no matter how you slice the numbers, it's not a common word. [Note: Extending the data continues its fall from the peak near 1980.]

Graphic from Google Ngram.

First some definitions for our victim, relatable:
1. That may be narrated.
2. That may be brought into relation with something else.
                                                                        —OED Compact, 1971
3. Enabling a person to feel that they can relate to someone or something
                                                                        —Google search result
Here are some examples of relatable that I thought were representative of what Google's results returned to me. A sample from 1916:
"On the whole relatable subjects be gradually replaced by general vocational subjects during phase." —Bulletin of the Board of Education, Issue 27
Another sample from 1922:
"…the core of a very wide number of scientific, transportation, mathematical and other relatable material." —Vocational education magazine, Vol. 1
Here relatable seems to be a technical word that means, as best as I can tell, writing and reading. That is: things that can be related.

Here's a later sample from 1978:
"…and substantively relatable to correspondingly relevant ideas in the abstract sense…" —Educational Psychology
And that seems to be the second OED definition. A cursory, and certainly non-mathematical, read of Google's results seems to show that the earlier uses are definition one. Later uses are definition two. Ordinary semantic drift. No?

But then something happens, as Andrew Klavan shows us in his 1988 novel The Trapdoor. It's an astonishing example. Go read it. For the lazy, here are the relevant quotes:
"Carey can cover that. It's not relatable."
Standard business. They're talking about newspaper stories, so definition one can apply. But then…
"Cambridge was hired, after all, to make the Star more relatable, which means people will be able to relate to it more."
Klavan gives us a new definition!
"It's a Californian word, I think."
And an origin.
"In the six months since he'd been here, I'd heard him use it maybe four hundred times."
And a gripe about it. As if it were some sort of abuse of the word. The funny thing about this is that aside from the second quote that gives the new definition, all other uses of relatable on the linked page can be read with the first definition OR the third definition.

One last example from 2006:
"These are the kind of questions that go into the development of' 'relatable' characters in a screenplay." —Screenwriting for Teens
Note the quotes. They are there in the print version of the book. I picked this quote because even the writer of the book seems squeamish about the word. Other writers just used the word as is. So clearly this is some unease about using relatable with its new definition. Why is that?

My suspicion is that it has to do with transitivity. English, to me anyway, seems relatively lax about transitivity. Verbs can cross this gap, and no one seems to mind.
Intransitive: I walked to church.
Transitive: I walked the dog.
Yawn. No big deal. English also suffixes -able/-ible to transitive and intransitive verbs:
Intransitive: Don is reliable. We can rely on him.
Transitive: You're in an enviable situation. I can envy it.
More yawn. For me anyway: some people seem not to like reliable. Speakers seem content to leave transitivity of the root verb alone when deriving these adjectives. Relatable seems to jump from deriving from a transitive to an intransitive verb.
"Carey can cover that. It's not relatable."
Intransitive: People don't relate to the story.
Transitive: We can't relate [tell] the story.
This jump is more than just a simple change in meaning. It also shifts the transitivity of the source verb, and that may be what makes this change in meaning feel so unacceptable to older speakers who grew up with the transitive version. I'd suggest other words with -able/-ible that are derived from intransitive verbs, but I can't think of any offhand.

Now to relate all of this to a dead language (and show how I've made a mountain from a molehill), here is where we get relatable from:
refero, referre, retuli, relatum — to bring or carry back
Relatable comes from the last principal part, relatum. Looking at the first two principal parts should suggest another -able word: referable. And that turns out to be a much more common word. 

Graphic from Google Ngram.

That's relatable.