Mind your language

The weird truth about the word ‘normal’

Praise, insult, sexual euphemism – what an extraordinary range of meaning

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

10 October 2015

9:00 AM

‘Is Nicky Morgan too “normal” to be the next prime minister?’ asked someone in the Daily Telegraph. That would make her abnormally normal, I suppose, at least for a PM. ‘Who and what dictates what is normal?’ asked Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, earlier this year, but, like jesting Pilate, did not stay for an answer. She posed the question because she does not like communities where ‘women normally stay at home, they normally get married very early, they normally wouldn’t vote, they normally don’t run a business’. They have been warned.

Yet most people would prefer not to have an abnormal heartbeat, no matter how far out of the ordinary their opinions were. Normal in the sense of ‘ordinary’ became common in English from about 1840, so the Oxford English Dictionary noted in 1907 when it got around to words beginning with n.

A correlative is queer, and indeed normal has been used to mean ‘heterosexual’ for at least a century. Daniel Farson (1927–97), once famous as a television personality and later as a remarkably energetic homosexual, published in the last year of his life a fat autobiography called Never a Normal Man. The funny thing was that the phrase had not been used of him, but of his father Negley, the author of an even better-selling memoir, The Way of a Transgressor. Like Dan, Negley had been an alcoholic and had committed himself to an asylum in Switzerland. The director told him: ‘Keep your conflicts, Mr Farson, it is better for you never to be a normal man.’

Nicky Morgan is certainly not an alcoholic. Nor does Justine Greening call for more women to become alcoholics (interesting though it might be as an election policy). She would like women not all to stay at home, refrain from voting or keep away from business. She wants her normal to supplant other people’s.

My husband tells me that only a decade ago doctors quite often included slightly opaque initials in patients’ notes: PFO for a drunken patient who’d been injured falling over; TTFO for ‘Told to fuck off’; and, at least in Norwich, NFN ‘Normal for Norfolk’. It couldn’t happen now that transparency is the new norm.

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  • Clive

    ‘Normal’ is a dangerous word. I remember reading that putting Soviet dissidents in psychiatric institutions – which I thought was just to discredit them and probably was, at least partly – was justified on the basis that disagreement with the Utopian system in which they lived was so far from normality as to be psychotic.

    Normality hinders progress in so many ways. Every time someone wants to look at someone else as ‘abnormal’ – whatever word they use for it – they should think about what ‘normal’ is in Islamic State territory.

    Maybe the person they are looking at is not so abnormal after all.

    • Most of the above is absolute nonsense. Normal means typical, commonly seen; in terms of a particular facet of physique or ability, characteristics within a range that is typical of the majority. What is the problem? I can’t see any unless a person has taken offence because they are unhappy that it might be noticed or commented on that something about them is unusual. That is their problem, not mine, and it is their problem because they are not happy in their own skin, not because I am looking down on them. Let’s take a particular, perhaps controversial example – homosexuality. I have no view on this phenomenon. I don’t care a hoot about other people’s sexuality – not at all. It is their own private business and I don’t expect people to be interested in my own sexuality, or to take a view on it, even if it is unconventional, or isn’t. BUT it is not NORMAL to be homosexual. This is a fact, because NORMAL means ‘like most people’, and most people are clearly heterosexual. This is not a value judgement, just correct use of the English language. I wish the homosexual community every happiness in their relationships, but they are not typical and so are not in the correct use of the term, ‘NORMAL’.

  • Precambrian

    The problem is that the word ‘normal’ has been hijacked by deeply abnormal people who skew the definition away from a synonym for an established sustainable healthy state into a spin for one unhealthy behaviour or another.

  • The term has a technical meaning representing what is typical in a given situation. In relation to an aspect of humanity such as height, the term ‘normal male height’ means exactly what it says – someone around the average. People decrying use of the term should take a look through a textbook on statistics. The fact that some people are of normal height, implies no disrespect, discourtesy or any other negative sleight on those who are of abnormal height, be it unusually tall or short. The world has become mad as we more and more bow to the rantings of a vociferous minority. meanwhile, I am perfectly happy to be normal in some aspects of my physical and psychological make-up and my abilities, and abnormal in others. What’s the problem?