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.’

Update (Jan. 29, 2017). Today’s NY Times has a column on this very topic, “The Normalization Trap” by Adam Bear and Joshua Knobe:

After conducting a series of experiments that examined how people decide whether something is normal or not, we found that when people think about what is normal, they combine their sense of what is typical with their sense of what is ideal.

Normal, in other words, turns out to be a blend of statistical and moral notions.

Our key finding can be illustrated with a simple example. Ask yourself, “What is the average number of hours of TV that people watch in a day?” Then ask yourself a question that might seem very similar: “What is the normal number of hours of TV for a person to watch in a day?”

If you are like most of our experimental participants, you will not give the same answer to the second question that you give to the first. Our participants said the “average” number was about four hours and the “normal” number was about three hours. In addition, they said that the “ideal” number was about 2.5 hours. This has an interesting implication. It suggests that people’s conception of the normal deviates from the average in the direction of what they think ought to be so.

Our studies found this same pattern in numerous other cases: the normal grandmother, the normal salad, the normal number of students to be bullied in a middle school. Again and again, our participants did not take the normal to be the same as the average. Instead, what people picked out as the “normal thing to do” or a “normal such-and-such” tended to be intermediate between what they thought was typical and what they thought was ideal.

Isn’t that interesting?

Update (Jan. 13, 2021). I started reading Andrei Bitov’s Choosing a Location: Georgian Album (in translation as part of A Captive of the Caucasus), and this passage in the introductory chapter obviously belonged here (Susan Brownsberger’s translation):

The word norm has been spoken. I will take advantage of it to say something about the norm. The norm that is as beautiful, desired, and long awaited as water and air — air and water being in short supply.

In my childhood, I remember, this was a normal word, almost slang, almost from backwardness and poverty of vocabulary, but whatever the reason, this was the word: “a normal fellow,” “a normal movie” — with an exclamation mark, as the superlative degree. The “normal” was surrounded by the “not normal,” which was expressed with more variety: “He’s a crank. Not normal. Backward.” Or, “Lies, foolishness.” In short, “To hell with him!” It is common knowledge that children, like dogs, have an aversion to abnormality […]

After the “bread norm,” in a less hungry time, the popular meaning of norm became more condescending: normal in the sense of “not bad, but nothing special either.” Still later, nearer to the present, it was even disdainful: in the sense of “nearly,” in the sense of “and nothing more.” As though we had surpassed the norm and were accustomed to turn our gaze only upon the truly exceptional . . .

Here’s the Russian (you can read the full passage here):

Слово «норма» произнесено. Я обопрусь на него, чтобы суметь сказать о норме. О той прекрасной, желанной, долгожданной, как вода и воздух. Раз уж их не хватает, воздуха и воды.

Помнится, в детстве было это нормальным словечком, почти жаргонным, почти от бедности словаря и недоразвитости, – но почему-то именно это словечко: «нормальный парень», «нормальное кино», с восклицательным знаком, как превосходная степень. «Норма» была окружена «не нормой» более разнообразно: «псих какой-то ненормальный, недоразвитый…» или «вранье, глупости», – короче, «да ну его!». Общеизвестно, что дети, как и собаки, ненормальностей не любят: уродов, пьяных, фальшивых… – тут они категоричны и строги. У них обостренное чувство нормы. Лишенное гуманизма.

Позже «хлебной нормы», в менее голодное время, смысл «нормы» как ходового словечка стал более снисходительным: нормальное – в смысле неплохое, но и ничего особенного. Еще позже, ближе к нам, – даже пренебрежительное: в смысле «всего лишь», в смысле «и только». Будто сами-то мы стали безусловно выше нормы, мы ее превзошли и привыкли обращать свой взор лишь на что-то из ряда вон…


  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:
    It’s a long time since they were actually used for that purpose though (see here: 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: 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:


  16. David Marjanović says:

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


    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.

  33. Miichael says:

    If you split the word normal into two words, on the simple basis that words are derived from others, you have nor and mal. Nor can mean No.. Mal can mean Bad. On that option of significance we arrive at Not Bad If we say not bad, then we can also say not good either. Thus we arrive at an intermediary state of normality.

    Nor can also mean North as a point of direction on a compass.That sense of direction may lead us to a position opposite to Sou or South. In navigational terms, we call it Dead Reckoning or an approximation of our position. Somewhere (coming from Sum Where, which is a calculated sum) I suggest, between two extremes that can be said to be neither here nor there, but normal as a passive sense of acceptability.

  34. Ah yes, poetic etymology!

  35. “Poetic” is obviously “Poe” + “tic,” which lends support to the theory that Poe suffered from epilepsy.

  36. See the Update for the results of a most interesting series of experiments.

  37. David Eddyshaw says:

    Re the Update: “normal” is hardly unusual among words in combining a sober Vulcan denotation with a connotation of emotional baggage and/or moral judgment. It is an interesting case inasmuch as you can argue (like the Update) that in this case the denotation and connotation are actually related simply as points on a scale.
    I don’t think “normalisation” is a psycholinguistic question really; we’re just talking about the age-old problem of becoming habituated to atrocity. Absit omen.

    The best response to the word “normal” itself is to deny the moral judgment altogether, like Auden:

    I hate the modern trick, to tell the truth,
    Of straightening out the kinks in the young mind,
    Our passion for the tender plant of youth,
    Our hatred for all weeds of any kind.
    Slogans are bad: the best that I can find
    Is this: ‘Let each child have that’s in our care
    As much neurosis as the child can bear.’

    Goddess of bossy underlings, Normality!
    What murders are committed in thy name!
    Totalitarian is thy state Reality,
    Reeking of antiseptics and the shame
    Of faces that all look and feel the same.
    Thy Muse is one unknown to classic histories,
    The topping figure of the hockey mistress.

  38. “normal” is hardly unusual among words in combining a sober Vulcan denotation with a connotation of emotional baggage and/or moral judgment.

    Oh, sure, but I thought it was interesting to look at this particular word in that way.

  39. David Eddyshaw says:

    True enough, and it is indeed an interesting article.
    I’m perhaps feeling a bit oversensitive on this topic of “normalisation” at present. Like all normal people …

    Actually, while there may well be normal rocks or trees, maybe even normal animals, among *people* I’m sure normality is an illusion created by distance. I’ve often put someone down as normal initially, but discovered on better acquaintance that they have at least some redeeming spark of abnormality.

  40. I’ve added an update with a very relevant passage from Bitov. (I abridged the second paragraph of the translation a bit because I got tired of typing.)

  41. We are normal (and we want our freedom)

  42. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ah! The never-sufficiently-to-be-praised Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band*! Eat yer hearts out, Beatles!

    *They were extremely normal. An inspiration to us normal people everywhere.

  43. When I was a schoolboy I was afraid that normal people exist. As a teeneger, I found that all my friends are crazy.
    I was pleased. Then I noticed that everyone I know well enough turns out to be crazy, and assumed that all people is so.

    Since then I have realized that it is just a myth and likely normal people as I imagined them even can not exist, if this image of normality is an average: an average between men an women does not exist.

    There are bimodal distributions, there are variables that are functions of other variables (x1, x2..), such that when values of x1, x2.. are average, the function is not.
    An average person is an impossible chimera, and possibly the idea of a normal person is inspired by it.

  44. нормалёк

    Особенно хорошо Валентина Ивановна развернула тезис о “четких ориентирах”. Она подчеркнула, что времена и так смутные, а тут еще коронавирус и сенаторы перестали соображать в каких координатах они находятся, в какую сторону дальше действовать. Но теперь Владимир Владимирович их сориентировал в координатах и всё будет нормалёк, сенаторы не подведут.

  45. Wow, нормалёк is great.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    an average between men an women does not exist

    Well, it does, but it’s very rare.

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