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A colleague recently complained to me of the usage of relatable in student writing. It appears to derive from intransitive relate, OED sense 9, attested only from 1947:

intr. With to. To understand or have empathy for; to identify or feel a connection with. Also without construction.

Most adjectives formed from verbs with suffix -able or -ible are formed from transitive verbs so as to modify what would be their direct objects, as readable modifies what one might read; but this is no invariable rule, since laughable modifies what one might laugh at. So the intransitivity of this sense of relate is not a valid objection.

The Google Books Ngram utility suggests that relatable peaked in the seventies (though it cannot well distinguish usages with a "to s.t." from those without, the latter only being in question here). And indeed these usages of both relate and relatable strike me as redolent of that era's youth culture or counterculture; they seem to function primarily as a kind of slang, i.e., to identify the user as a member of that culture, hipper than those who might use understand and understandable for the same purposes. If that is all that is going on, such usages are generally ill-suited to formal academic writing. But is there more to it than that in this case?

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I don't think relatable has ever had much currency in any of the three senses given by OED...

1: Able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating
2: Able to be brought into relation with something else
3: That can be related to; with which one can identify or empathize

It's worth noting that the first citation for OP's sense (#3 above) is Theory into Practice (1965)...

research indicated that boys saw teachers as more directive, while girls saw them as more ‘relatable’

...where the 'scare quotes' clearly indicate that the writer knew perfectly well it was an "unusual" usage. For my money, that sense never took off anyway, so I wouldn't use it at all - especially not in a formal context. Why use the ungainly "A is relatable to B" when you can just use "normal" English such as B can relate to A (or whatever exact "relationship" you mean)?

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If you take relatable to be derived from the following definition of relate in the OED (trans. sense 2):

  1. a.I.2.a To recount, narrate, tell, give an account of (actions, events, facts, etc.)

Relatable can mean able to be recounted, or an account given of, and therefore has a distinct difference in meaning to understandable.

Understandable means that the subject is able to be understood, whereas relatable means that knowledge of the subject can be passed on to another.

Something can be understood without necessarily being able to be explained to another.

  • Yes indeed that is quite separate in meaning from "understandable," and yes too it is used in that sense without a "to s.t.," but my question concerns "relatable" in OED sense 3 not sense 1, as FumbleFingers correctly discerned. I apologize for not making that clear within my headline. – Brian Donovan May 22 '14 at 16:36

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