Wednesday, December 07, 2005


I was just thinking this morning how abused the word 'normal' is in the modern lexicon.

Normal has many synonyms, which kinda sorta mean the same thing, but they don't. Basically though, if you break it down, it ends up meaning just a handful of things: average, in a roughly statistical sense; typical or expected; and healthy, in a social norm or biological sense.

Unfortunately, these meanings can get convoluted when the word normal is used, and different audiences can extract different meanings from what is intended. In climatology, a normal temperature may well be average, but it may not be typical. That's because the concept of normal as mathematical average ignores the existence of standard deviation, which is the typical deviation from the average. That can often be large, yet how many laypersons know of any distinction between average and typical? It's hard to do when the word 'normal' is used for both meanings.

Similarly, in medicine, a normal person may also be mathematically average among the populace, but might not be truly healthy in the sense of being "healthful". In that case, it's only intended to mean "typical", but many may take it to mean "expected", and along with that, "proper". What good does this confusion do anyone?

And in what sense is a normal person typical? Or expected? Or even a mathematical average? Probably not often, and yet I think most of us would come away with that idea even if it's not the intended one. The problem is that we carry all these distinct definitions of the word with us simultaneously, and can interpret the specific use of the word at a given time in a nearly random way. The more you think about it, the less that 'normal' has useful meaning. If you have to keep using other qualifiers to explain your use of the word 'normal', then maybe there's no point to using 'normal' in the first place.


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