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Saturday, February 27, 2010

The decline of normal

By Dick Hirsch

So it snowed five and a half feet in places like Philadelphia, Richmond and Washington while in Buffalo, the city generally conceded to be the home office of winter, we received a barely measurable inch and a half.

Is that normal?

No, I suppose it isn’t normal, but, on the other hand, considering the state of affairs, some might call it normal. Huh? I can explain.

There is no more normal.

If you are old enough to be reading this you should consider your own situation and ask yourself whether what you once accepted as normal still qualifies for that status. Nothing stays the same. You’ve occasionally been advised---and occasionally warned---that the only constant is change. The demise of normal is just an example of the truth of that axiom.

Occasionally over the last few years I’ve heard people asking when things will get back to normal. They yearn for normal even though, as time passes, it should become obvious to them that normal is an obsolete word. In its heyday, normal meant standard, usual, typical or expected. People had a pretty solid understanding of what the meaning of normal was when they made an assessment of a person, place, thing or situation, and then defined it as normal.

Not anymore. I used the bizarre winter storms as an example at the outset. Let me propose another. For years a majority of drivers in the US grew to accept as fact that Japanese automobiles were technically superior to those manufactured by the domestic auto companies, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. I held that belief myself, although I’ve never been known for my brand loyalty when it came to cars. When I surveyed the brand of cars driven by my friends and acquaintances, I found that few of them chose the traditional US brands. They were supremely confident in the cars from Japan, led by Toyota, that most successful innovator and manufacturer of passenger cars. It was normal to believe Toyota exercised greater vigilance in the design and manufacture and, thus, marketed a better, more reliable product.

That was the normal opinion, wouldn’t you agree? It’s normal no longer. Toyota will still remain a popular brand but it will never recapture the rank it previously held, the rank with the golden glow. That Toyota trouble is merely a current event that can be used to illustrate the position that “normal” has become a very flexible category. Perhaps it always has been pliable and we just didn’t realized it.

Normal ebbs and flows and that movement requires regular redefining of the term. With new standards established, what once passed as normal would no longer be graded that way.

For generations the best known and most often quoted normal statistic was 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the body temperature which healthy persons strived to maintain and ailing persons sought to regain. Then one day a doctor stuck a thermometer in my mouth---or was it my ear?---when I was recovering from a cough and cold. He checked the reading and said: “Close enough.”

“You mean it’s not normal?” I asked.

“Close enough,” he repeated.

I was shocked. Like so many others, I thought “close” counted only in horseshoes. But I accepted his verdict and that was the beginning of my awareness of the decline of normal.

That decline was hastened by the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 people realized the world had changed, yet they still asked each other how long it would be before things returned to normal. As the weeks went by it became clear that our lives would never again be the same as they once were. Since that day we have been preparing for new circumstances, adjusting to the realities of life as it is now.

In the 1920 presidential campaign, Warren G. Harding’s successful slogan promised a “Return to normalcy.” Teachers of English all across the US were outraged since they rightfully claimed there was no such word. The proper term, they said, was “normality,” but normalcy weathered that criticism, entered the language and is in the dictionary today, nearly a century later.

I don’t believe related conditions such as abnormal, subnormal or paranormal have been affected by the demise of normal. Why have they endured while the basic word has lost its prestige. The answer seems obvious: they’re not normal.


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