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Normalement, or back to normal?

May 13, 2020 - 5:11pm

There are many phrases I have grown tired of since the coronavirus crisis began. ‘Strange times”, ‘we’re out of milk’ and ‘shall we zoom?’ all come close, but the most grating must be “back to normal”.

It has echoes of my children asking “are we there yet?” on long car journeys — the impatient desire to speed up something that will take its own sweet time. But it’s not just the impatience behind the desire to get “back to normal” that is troubling me, it’s also the implication that we a) want to go backwards and b) the world we had before was as it should be.

My francophile husband clarified this tension for me by pointing out the different ways ‘normal’ is used in French and English. For English speakers, it just means sort of average, everyday, how things are. In French there is much more a sense of what ought to be, what we hope will be, not just what is. Where we would use ‘normally’ they would use ‘habituellement’ with its connotations of things done out of habit.

‘Normalement’, on the other hand is a ‘false friend’ when learning the language — not a direct translation of normally but much more about what we hope will be, if all goes as it should. It’s why a French person learning English might say “Normally, I will be at the party this evening”, which makes no sense to a native English speaker. They mean ‘if the day goes as it should and nothing abnormal prevents me, I will be there’.

The French use is much more related to the way we use ‘normative’ — not just a deviation around a mean, but a standard to aim for. This makes sense given the etymology of the word normal, which comes from the Latin for a craftsman’s right angled tool, used to measure what is straight and correct, rather than wonky.

I have been pondering whether this difference might be reflective of something deeper, and related to the divergence between continental and British philosophy. It’s a huge oversimplification, but the tradition of ‘sensible’ British empiricists were interested in stripping the “should” out of our understanding of the world, to focus not on what ought to be, but what is.

It was in part a reaction to both Judeo-Christian and Greek understandings of the world as having a ‘telos’, an end point towards which it was moving. Our pragmatic, occasionally vision-less national character is perhaps shaped by this jettisoning of a sense of momentum to a better world.

All, clearly, speculative for now, but it has had one effect. I have resolved to avoid the phrase “back to normal” and to instead use the phrase “forward to normal”, and let that ‘normal’ be, if not said in a French accent, at least more hopeful and more open to possibility.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield


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Alan Hughes
Alan Hughes
4 years ago

I always learn something when I visit this site. Many thanks

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
4 years ago

I am glad to hear that Elizabeth’s husband is a francophile. Regarding the word “normative”, it actually comes from the French word “normatif”, and here I think the meaning is the same in both languages. Is there anything in people’s habitual routines that Elizabeth would like to see discarded as we go forward to normal? Graeme Archer has already given us his highly entertaining list. I would be interested in knowing hers.

T J Putnam
T J Putnam
4 years ago

Nice linguistic difference to point up, tho don’t forget that the French examples correctly contain normal in the sense of ‘usually’ as well as the sense of ‘proper’. There’s more to be explored here, the common sense of supposedly empiricist Britons is replete with normative content. As Boris&co are about to be found out, this common sense vaeies according to how it is embedded in different social situations and not all that manipulable by spin