(photo by  Craig Rodway, https://flic.kr/p/6ft4Jw)
Dec 23, 2016

Geoff Nunberg’s Word of the Year: Normal

In an annual tradition, linguist Geoff Nunberg announced his 2016 Word of the Year this week on Fresh Air on National Public Radio:

'Normal': The Word Of The Year (In A Year That Was Anything But)

By Geoff Nunberg

It's been an unusual political year, to put it mildly, and you could write most of its story just by tracking its effects on the lexicon — the new words and new uses of old ones, some useful, some that we could do without.

I'll come to some of these in a minute. But for my word of the year, I'll go with "normal" and its sister "normalize." That may seem perverse for a year like this one, but when people are talking a lot about normal it's a sign that we're living in extraordinary times.

Start with "the new normal." Since the beginning of the century, that's how we've announced that events have forced us to accept new realities. In 2002 the new normal was long airport lines. In 2009 it was kids moving back in with their parents. Then came school lockdowns, soaring college debt and safe spaces.

But when you search on the phrase now, the results are always political. For some it's an energized racist fringe. For a writer at Forbes it's Pizzagate and online vigilantism. For The Washington Post it's a succession of pre-presidential tweets, dramas and victory tours that swell to fill every corner of the mediasphere.

But "normal" is a tricky word, with a Janus-faced meaning that it inherited from its origin as a medical term. It can refer to what's typical or expected, as in normal traffic or normal wear and tear. But it can also mean healthy or acceptable, as in a normal blood count.

The meaning varies with context....

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Geoff Nunberg is an adjunct professor in the UC Berkeley School of Information.

Banner photo courtesy of Craig Rodway.

Last updated:

December 23, 2016