To be normal is to fit within an established standard or type1. The word appeared in the English language in 1650, as something, usually a line, standing at a right angle to a surface2. This term originated from the Latin word normalis, whose own definition evolved from meaning “right-angled” to “conforming to or [being] governed by a rule”3. This change occurred due to its cousin word norma, used to define a “square used for obtaining right angles, a right angle,” consequently also a rule, “a standard or pattern of practice or behavior”4.
By 1828 normal’s English definition gained a non-mathematical meaning of “conforming to common standards, usual”, mimicking the evolution of its primitive Latin form2.
The meaning of normal as to obey or follow a rule, or to be regular, alludes to its original mathematical terminology. The meaning of normal as a standard, or a mode that does not deviate from a type, also shows a connection to its primary definition, as a normal line is strictly at a 90 degree angle in reference to a given point, line, or surface. This mathematical association strengthens normal as a word applied to a conduct that is correct, and does not stray from the given standard, rule, or principle.
Socially, normal became a very significant word between 1810 and 1850 when it attributed its second definition2. Over this period, Christianity dominated Europe, and soon defined a standard way of living out of its own ideologies, morals, and rules. In order to further establish this pious lifestyle as the regular, natural, mode of conduct, the Church began to pointedly call living by these standards normal behaviour. As aimed for, Christian comportment became typical, and applicable to the mass behaviour of the European population. A sort of “conceptual colonization” had taken place 4.
With today’s widely tolerant, religiously acceptant, multicultural society as evidence, it is obvious that the definition of normal in 19th century Europe no longer applies. Practices, like the weekly attendance of mass, that were then viewed as regular behaviour are now regarded as the habits of the most devout Catholics. Normal is therefore not defined by a fixed set of standards, but by ones that are deemed correct in the given time, situation, and company.
The word normal is much more subjective and connotative than it is factual and exact. It is formed amongst societal groups based on what is viewed as idealistic and desired, as with the 19th century Christians who believed that everyone normal should live by their morals, rules, and standards. Normal creates the boundary between the outsiders and those who are accepted, putting a label of abnormality, freakiness, and mutation on people who seem to deviate too far from the present ideals of behaviour.
1. Normal. Dictionary.com. n/a. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/normal#wordorgtop
2. Normal. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/normal (accessed: November 09, 2012).
3. Normal. Etymonline.com. Etymology Online. Dan McCormack. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=normal&allowed_in_frame=0 (accessed: November 09, 2012).
4. Kiossev, Alexander. “The Oxymoron of Normality”. Eurozine.com. Eurozine Magazine (2008). http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2008-01-04-kiossev-en.html.