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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

new normal

(2000’s | therapese? | “how we do it now,” “the way it is now”)

This phrase has been bandied about quite a bit lately. Hurricane Sandy brought a flood of uses, as commentator upon commentator, including Gov. Christie of New Jersey, bemoaned the increasing frequency of destructive storms. An NBC sitcom of that title (with “The”) debuted this fall. Amazon.com’s Kindle Fire is riffing on the expression, using “Normal is going to change again” as an advertising motto. Perhaps most aptly, cantankerous cartoon duck Mallard Fillmore noted that “Chronic abuse of the term, ‘the new normal’ . . . is the new normal” (October 20, 2012 — before Sandy!). All right, all right. I hear America knocking, and I shall respond.

A short history of this expression: “New normals” is a statistical term meaning simply new set of norms or standards, against which observations are henceforth to be measured. It could be derived from theory, but more likely from experiment. It was used in the 1970’s in this sense and probably before. Then “new normal” had some life as an adjective phrase in the 1970’s and 1980’s — an example would be “new normal relations” in discussions of diplomacy — but rarely used on its own as a noun. Something happened around 1990. The phrase began to crop up as a noun in a specific context, that of a traumatic event like a natural disaster, a death in the family, or even a mass killing like the Oklahoma City bombing. It was startling how often the phrase recurred in LexisNexis after 1990 in that narrow set of contexts, and the usage was the gateway to today’s fixed phrase. In those early instances, the phrase could take the definite article, the indefinite article, or a possessive pronoun. You have to keep an eye on the article; now “the” is a set part of the phrase, but that wasn’t always so. (As lovely Liz from Queens observed, the ascendancy of the definite article was influenced by expressions like “sixty is the new forty” or “gray is the new black.”) 9/11 gave the phrase a boost; it hadn’t achieved cliché status yet, but it was well and truly out there. By 2005, the phrase sounded comfortable in many contexts — oil prices, baseball, web design — and the backdrop of tragedy no longer was required.

Every nuance in the history of the phrase sketched above hews to one basic idea: the new normal is always the result of an irrevocable change or dislocation. When you can’t go back, you have to find, or create, an everyday framework that allows you to function and move ahead. That was true, in a less than dramatic way, about the statistical usage, and certainly true of the post-traumatic therapese use that grew up in the 1990’s. It’s the same story when you use it to talk about climate change. There’s an unfortunate corollary to that underlying principle: since change is usually for the worse, the “new normal” is usually harder, uglier, or less pleasant than the old. The new normal is a new low.

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