Q: Let me throw this one out to you. The highest compliment my college students can offer regarding a play is that it’s relatable. It speaks to them by addressing lives like their own. A TV sitcom is relatable, but not Hamlet.
A: The adjective “relatable” has had several related senses since it first appeared in English nearly 400 years ago. The latest, the one favored by your students, showed up half a century ago. Here’s the story.
The adjective originally meant capable of being told or suitable for telling, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED example, which uses the term negatively to mean inexpressible, is from the first English prose romance written by a woman, The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621), by Lady Mary Wroth:
“Ah sweet Philistella, had you seene the vn-relatable exquisitenesse of his youth, none could haue blam’d me, but euen chid me, for not instantly yeelding my passions wholly to his will; but proud ambition, and gay flatterie made me differ and loue your brother.” We’ve expanded the citation to give our readers a better feeling for Urania. A prose romance, as you know, is an early form of the novel, sometimes referred to as a proto-novel.
In the 19th century, the adjective came to mean capable of being related to something or brought into relation with it. The first OED example is from The Science of Knowledge, Adolph Ernst Kroeger’s translation of the work of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte: “It is also an act of the Ego, and, hence, relatable to the Ego.”
The sense of “relatable” you’re asking about (approachable because of similarities to one’s own life) showed up in the mid-20th century. The earliest OED example refers to teachers that students can identify with:
“The research indicated that boys saw teachers as more directive, while girls saw them as more ‘relatable.’ ” (From a 1965 issue of the journal Theory Into Practice.)
The next citation refers to shopping-mall reenactments of a television show, The Newlywed Game: “It’s relatable humor, the kind that takes place in every home.” (The Washington Post, Oct. 19, 1981.)
The latest Oxford example is from the New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2007: “This is what’s going on in sex and in college right now, and these are real people, and you’re more relatable if you’re a real person.” (The reference is to the models in Boink, a defunct college sex magazine.)