In a Word: Not So Normal

The history of the word normal and what we call things that aren’t.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Are you normal, or are you a square?

But I repeat myself.

That word normal traces back to the classical Latin norma, which was a carpenter’s square. Because makers used a norma to make sure their wares aligned properly — that is, to the rules of geometry — norma later took on the sense of “rule, pattern.” Late Latin adapted the word into the adjective normalis to indicate something that “followed the rules.”

English adopted this Late Latin derivation as normal in the 17th century, but it came in through mathematics in a more literal sense: Normal was a synonym of perpendicular — occurring at a right angle — the very thing that a carpenter’s square was designed to measure.

Once in English, though, normal followed the same path toward metaphorical usage as norma in Latin, but it took some time. Normal “conforming to common standards” doesn’t occur in the written record until the early 19th century.

So the history of the word normal is rather, well, normal. But what do you call something that isn’t normal? I reckon one word jumps out at you first, but there are other connections to be made.

Abnormal. This is the normal antonym or normal, using the Latinate prefix ab- (originally a preposition) meaning “off, away from.” But abnormal wasn’t the way English originally went. At the beginning of the 19th century, the word anormal came into English through through French anormalus, which actually comes from a corruption of the Greek anomalos, which means “uneven” and is also the source of the noun anomaly. Latin, however, had the word abnormalis, and it was probably through the influence of this word that anormal gave way to abnormal by the 1830s.

Enormous. Before abnormal, there was enormous. Using the assimilated form of ex- “out of,” the Latin enormis meant “out of rule, irregular.” The suffix was changed to -ous when the word came into English in the 1530s. Though “irregular” was the word’s primary meaning, the sense of “very large” (i.e., “abnormally big”) was hot on its tails and had become common before the century ended.

Paranormal. The first place many people go when they see the word paranormal is to ghosts, spirits, and poltergeists, but the word also encompasses UFOs, Bigfoot and other cryptids, and clairvoyance. Para- is a Greek prefix that means “beside,” so something paranormal is “beside the regular.”

Merriam-Webster has a very simple definition for this word, “not scientifically explainable,” but when it was first coined at the beginning of the 20th century, there was more to it than that. Events that were called paranormal were believed to follow the rules of science and the natural world, but they were rules that weren’t known to man yet. So they were, in a sense, normal occurrences, but we just didn’t understand how or why they worked.

Subnormal. This is a word you should probably avoid. Using the Latinate prefix sub- “under, below” subnormal originally popped up in geometry during the last quarter of the 19th century. But by the time the 20th century rolled around, it was often being used to describe people. During Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Era, African-American children wanting to get an education were administered tests that were often racist and unfair by design. Even into the 1970s, Black children with low test scores were labelled as emotionally and intellectually subnormal, and those low test scores became an argument for continued segregation.

Because it uses a prefix meaning “below,” subnormal carries more of a qualitative sense than the other, more neutral antonyms of normal.

Supernormal. Like subnormal, this word carries a qualitative meaning, but a generally positive one. Super is a Latin preposition meaning “over, above,” so something that is supernormal exceeds what is normal. The word first appeared in the written record in the 1830s, predating subnormal by a few decades, it’s pretty rare now. In the early days of comic books, protagonists like Superman or the Incredible Hulk were described as having supernormal powers; today that’s usually shortened to superpowers.

So, are you normal? But more importantly, do you really want to be?

Featured image: Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. Another interesting feature we have this week. Looking at the ‘abnormal’ paragraph, it’s interesting to note the Latin abnormalis almost lives on in the very close abnormality or abnormalities which we normally associate with doctors and scientists seeking to heal such problems.

    The enormous connection is interesting too, partly because something overly small didn’t seem to figure in to the normal-abnormal equation. Am I normal? Well, I watch Clayton Morris’s Paranormal Post channel on YouTube, and I’m attending another dog wedding next month, so I think so.

    —————————————————————————————————————-

    “Abner! Read this! Do you think Bob’s normal? A DOG wedding of all things?! Oh sure. He lives in L.A., Gladys! OHHH! Never mind. That’s all I need to know.”

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