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?