Dot Wordsworth

The weird truth about the word ‘normal’

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

Text settings

‘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.