NORMAL.

I had been planning to write about Pilnyak, but chastened by Conrad‘s remark in his farewell post—yes, remorseless time has eaten away the Varieties until there is not a single one left—that I am “adrift in Nova Zembla,” I will honor the memory of the sometimes anfractuous but always amene Vunex by posting on the kind of historico-cultural-linguistic nexus to which Conrad is drawn as a wasp is drawn to sunlight: the history and divers uses of the word normal.
As every schoolboy knows, normal is derived from Latin normalis, in the classical language meaning ‘right-angled’ but in later use also ‘conforming to or governed by a rule’ (norma meaning ‘square used for obtaining right angles, a right angle, a standard or pattern of practice or behavior’). Now, when it was first sucked up through the proboscides of the hungry languages of Europe from the sweet nectar of the Latin lexicon, the word had the humble original sense of ‘right-angled,’ but it gradually took on the later ones as well, and then underwent an efflorescence that varied by region and is tied in with the distasteful but inescapable realm of politics. Frankly, to delve into that realm myself would be both time-consuming and depressing; fortunately, Alexander Kiossev (Bulgarian Александър Кьосев) has done the spadework for me in his Eurozine article “The oxymoron of normality” (found via wood s lot). Kiossev starts with philology:

It is remarkable, that, despite the various waves of linguistic patriotism and purist filtering of foreign words, the Latin words “norm” and “normal” are present in all three major European language groups: Germanic, Roman, and Slavic. “Normal” is used even in Hungarian and Finnish, which belong to Finno-Ugric, a rare, non-European language family. … According to dictionaries, these words penetrated European languages at around the same time – roughly speaking, between 1810 (the first rare usages) and 1850 (common usage)….
Yet the semantic stability of the term’s meaning is no less remarkable. Along with its specialized meanings, old lexicons display four major meanings of “normal” in everyday speech:
- obeying the norm, following a rule, regular;
- habitual, frequent, usual, ordinary, moderate;
- standard, not deviating from;
- sane, healthy….
Despite this stability, one can notice a slow semantic shift in the meaning of “normal”. In contemporary lexicons, the normative meaning of “normal” (“obeying a norm”, “following a rule”) makes way for dominant descriptive meanings such as “usual”, “ordinary”, “typical”, “customary”, “common”, and “average”. Moreover, in meanings such as “standard” and “regular”, normative nuances are weak: these definitions imply technical procedures for measuring and ordering rather than moral or religious norms. It is as if the “norm” in the “normal” is gradually disappearing.

Then he gets into a more sociological kind of history:

Did the words “normal” and “normality” alter the “conceptual limits” (Koselleck) of European populations between 1810 and 1850? I believe it is highly probable that the word “normal” and its derivates contributed to a longue durée process – the ascendance of the new moral order. “God-given” virtues, laws, and decrees were gradually replaced by a dominant sociological imagination operating with overall trends and “statistical” norms. This meant replacing the Christian moral notion of a pious life with conformity to “typical”, “normal”, mass behaviour; divine normative guidelines were replaced with worldly, descriptive ones….

Given these lexicographical, pragmatic, semantic, and contextual details, one can argue that between 1810 and 1850, a kind of conceptual colonization took place in Europe. The words “normal” and “normality”… conquered the specialist fields of science and technology as well as everyday life: the aggressive, “self-evident” word family penetrated language barriers, fighting purisms, professional jargons, and common habits, and changing the horizon of expectations and the conceptual limits of mass behaviour. It introduced a major principle of modernity: the conceptual binary “normal/deviation”. “Normal” becomes a designation for the internalized, routine, self-evident modern order, a designation that conceals its disciplinary and technological character….

He then turns to his primary subject, the contrast between Eastern and Western European conceptions of what is “normal”: in very brief summary, the East started out equating “normal” with “European,” treating their (decades old and often brief) experiences as independent and more or less democratic countries, part of the European community, as their historical norm and the recent decades under the oppression of Communism as an aberration. As he says, “In the slogan ‘revolution back to normality’, ‘normality’ occupied the place left empty by the ‘bright future’ of communism.” But when they ran into the reality of the “all-encompassing standardization and regulation policies” imposed by the EU, there was a backlash:

Confronted with the real bureaucratic Europe, the “longing for European normality” became a disappointed utopia and produced the opposite reaction: a new longing for difference, “authenticity”, and communality. This is one explanation for the recent wave of nationalist and isolationist movements in eastern Europe. These movements also regard themselves as returning to “normal”, only now, “normal” and “natural” are interpreted as “native soil and roots”.

Words like normal are much slipperier and harder to investigate than less charged words; some of Kiossev’s discussion strikes me as tendentious (especially when he gets onto the subject of “consumption”), but his separation of the strands of interpretation of what at first seems a relatively straightforward concept is valuable and thought-provoking. What is “normal”? Each of us has our own norm, which we tend to take for granted until it collides with somebody else’s.
As they say in Zemblan, Все нормально [vsyo normal'no]: ‘everything’s normal.’

Comments

  1. One meaning of ‘normal; that isn’t covered here is its use in education, i.e., in the term ‘normal school’.
    ‘Normal school’ has long fallen out of use in English, but it previously used to be current. I once found a historical plaque for a ‘normal school’ in the centre of Brisbane (Qld), which was running in the late 19th century.
    The Chinese still use this for the English names of their educational institutions (e.g., Beijing Normal University). And, of course, the French also use the term as in École Normale Supérieur (I haven’t checked the spelling).

  2. A normal school being one which teaches norms, of course.

  3. We still have quite a few “normal schools” here in New Zealand, at least by name:
    http://www.google.co.nz/search?q=%22normal+school%22+site%3A.school.nz
    It’s a long time since they were actually used for that purpose though (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_school). They’re all just ordinary primary schools now.

  4. “It’s a long time since they were actually used for that purpose though (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_school). They’re all just ordinary primary schools now.”
    Except of course where they are near to “special schools”, in which case the norms of childish behaviour guarantee that those attending the normal school will make much of their “normality” and the “special” status of the others. Been there, done that.

  5. This is, indeed, just the sort of thing I like. Thanks.

  6. David Harmon says:

    And then of course, there’s all the issues with disability and “difference”, brought out by various support and activism groups. Notably, autistics have begun griping about “neurotypicals”….

  7. On the other hand, what about the sinister left?

  8. michael farris says:

    I’ll mention two typically Polish uses of normalny that I haven’t encountered in other languages.
    1. An intensifier, especially with negative emotions/situations: normalna panika (complete panic), normalna paranoja (completely insane situation)
    2. Discussions of conditions in Poland are often contrasted with those ‘w normalnym kraju’ (in a normal country). This can either be based on conditions in some other country (usually the US or western europe) or it can just be shorthand for ‘the way I think things should be’.
    In this meaning, Poland can never be ‘a normal country’ because the definition of ‘normalny’ means ‘better than Poland’.

  9. That first one is really interesting. What a protean word it is!

  10. michael farris — Your #2 is the same in Latvian, or at least was back in 1993 when I lived there. Seemingly every other phrase was a reference to a “normal” country. To aspire to greatness was to aspire to normalcy. But I see only 293 google hits for “normāla valsts” today.
    I don’t recall any use similar to your #1, which is fascinating. Protean indeed. But I’m no native speaker either.

  11. 1. An intensifier, especially with negative emotions/situations: normalna panika (complete panic), normalna paranoja (completely insane situation)
    Not so surprising, when one thinks of the use of regular as an intensifier. SOED:

    Thorough, complete, absolute. colloq. E19.

    Webster’s 3rd International:

    being such without any doubt : THOROUGH, COMPLETE, UNMITIGATED

    And of course the geometric uses of regular and normal are close. Webster’s 3rd International, for regular:

    (1) : both equilateral and equiangular … (2) : having faces that are congruent regular polygons and all the polyhedral angles congruent

    So rectangular (“normal”), when applied to quadrilaterals.
    Compare also: “He’s a right fool.”

  12. O, and Webster’s use of congruent is poor. Should be equal, for angles.

  13. English, of course, has the problem of two nouns for a ‘normal situation’: normality and normalcy.
    The second seems to have greater depth of connotation than the first. While ‘normality’ is an intellectual appeal to recognise what is normal, ‘normalcy’ makes the state of being ‘normal’ sound so comfortable and inviting that one would have to truly antisocial to want anything else.

  14. John Emerson says:

    A vast topic. “Normal” also has a chemical meaning, describing the amount of a reagent in a solution in terms of its reactive potential.
    There’s also the big problem of whether “normal” is “normative” or descriptive. If most people are overweight, is it normal to be overweight? Are people with a 150 IQ abnormal?
    Usually “abnormal” means both: atypical and wrong. But in some contexts it can mean either one, in the absence of the other.
    And then there are all the other geometric metaphors in ethics: right, just, true, straight, etc. Most of these metaphors also are found in Chinese, along with others such as “flat” (“p’ing”).

  15. Terry Collmann says:

    SNAFU

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Oh yeah, the École Normale Supérieure, which is not in the least normale and just supérieure

    (“p’ing”)

    Still using Wade-Giles? *insert repeated dental click and fine smile here*

  17. Ya see, David, WG is unmistakable for that syllable. “Ping” might be “bing”, but “p’ing” can only be “p’ing”.

  18. In Japanese, ノルマ noruma, which comes from Russian, refers to a work or production target.

  19. Siganus Sutor says:

    David: Oh yeah, the École Normale Supérieure, which is not in the least normale and just supérieure…
    In France the “Écoles normales” (which were different from “Normale Sup’”) were the schools that used to teach teaching to the future primary school teachers. Nowadays what are normally known as the “IUFMs” have replaced this old-fashioned (1833) normality with their own, which has become (in)famous for its political bias. No need to say that, pleonastically, it is an abnormal bias.

  20. Siganus Sutor says:

    David: Oh yeah, the École Normale Supérieure, which is not in the least normale and just supérieure…
    In France the “Écoles normales” (which were different from “Normale Sup’”) were the schools that used to teach teaching to the future primary school teachers. Nowadays what are normally known as the “IUFMs” have replaced this old-fashioned normality (dated 1833) with their own, which has become (in)famous for its political bias. No need to say that, pleonastically, it is an abnormal bias.

  21. Siganus Sutor says:

    Steve, the comment didn’t appear the first time. Is it normal?

  22. In Japanese, ノルマ noruma, which comes from Russian, refers to a work or production target.
    Which reminds me of Sorokin’s novel Norma [The norm], in which Part Two consists entirely of vertically arranged lists of nouns, all preceded by the adjective “normal” (normal’nyi) and in which, according to Masha Lipman in the New Yorker, “all of his characters are forced to eat ‘the norm,’ a ration of what is unmistakably human feces.” I can’t believe I didn’t think to mention it in the post.

  23. And, for this reason, the nation which occupied England in 1066 and brought it under a single system of laws for the first time are known to history as the Normans.
    (ducks for cover)

  24. I’m sure we can work Norma Desmond in here somehow.

  25. Siganus Sutor says:

    LH: norma meaning [....] a standard or pattern of practice or behavior’
    Hmmm… This, and what Kiossev is reported to say (dominant descriptive meanings such as “usual”, “ordinary”, “typical”, “customary”, “common”, and “average”), reminds me of a heated discussion I had a long time ago, with a grandmother, about the abnormality of homosε×uality. It was very much a linguistic debate as well as a societal one, and she was arguing, against my opinion, that being gay “c’est anormal”. Considering what has been said here, I wonder now whether she wasn’t right in some sense.
    Hmmm…. Could it be legitimate to say, in certain circumstances, with a specific meaning, that it is ab-normal to be gay?

  26. Speaking of protean:
    Have you done posts on ‘thing’ and ‘stuff’?

  27. I have not. (As far as I remember.)

  28. This thread had a little bit of things and stuff in it.

  29. John Cowan says:

    Then there’s enormous and enormity, which originally had to do merely with being outside the norm. The Peeververein will tell you it is an enormity to use enormity except in the sense of a deviation from moral norms, and that only enormousness is appropriate for large size (a meaning that enormous has had since the mid-16th century). But this is folly, for nobody talks about enormities when they mean ‘venial sins’, though they are also outside the moral norm.

  30. It just occurred to me to wonder about the given name Norma, so I checked Patrick Hanks and Flavia Hodges, A Dictionary of First Names (p. 253), and found:

    Italian and English: apparently invented by Felice Romani in his libretty for Bellini’s opera of this name (first performed in 1832). It is identical in form with Latin norma rule, standard, but there is no evidence that this word was the actual source of the name. In recent times, it has come to be taken in England and the Scottish Highlands as a feminine equivalent of Norman.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    My father spent most of his career as a math teacher in an Ecole Normale d’Instituteurs and retired about the time the status of those schools changed. I think that the “normale” here meant not that it was teaching a norm, but provided standardized training for future primary school teachers. There were separate schools for men and women. At the time that I was familiar with the system, students entered at about 16 years of age after a competitive exam, and the curriculum for the first three years was identical to the final three years of “modern” secondary schools (ie without Latin or Greek), culminating with the “bac” exam, with the fourth year devoted to supervised teacher training. During the whole four years they lived in the school, free of charge. This system worked for many decades, especially attracting students from rural and working-class families. Things eventually broke down when education at the same level became the norm rather than the exception, and most students were reluctant to commit to four years of relatively strict, single sex “boarding school”, especially if their families lived in town. Nowadays (as far as I know) students can enter the 2-year teacher training program after their “bac”. My youngest sister and her husband both went through this program.

  32. Hence Safire’s column-collection In Love with Norma Loquendi.

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