The Normalization of ‘Normalize’ Is a Sign of the New Normal

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The word “normalize” has become, well, normal. Long before Donald Trump became the president-elect, his detractors warned against “normalizing” his myriad violations of campaign decorum: the bigotry and misogyny, the Putin-philia and cavalier talk about nuclear weapons. Since Trump’s election two weeks ago, “don’t normalize this” has become a liberal mantra, a reminder to stay vigilant in the face of aberrant presidential behavior that Americans may feel tempted—or emotionally bludgeoned—into excusing as just the way the country works now.

The viral spread of ‘normalize’ could be happening because it strikes people as genuinely useful.

You may feel like you’ve noticed it more in headlines, on Twitter, and over the dinner table. Don’t worry, you aren’t suffering from the frequency illusion, that perceptual fallacy where after you learn about something, you suddenly seem to see it everywhere. On the contrary, data shows that a large segment of the US is latching onto the word in the weeks after the election. Kory Stamper, lexicographer at Merriam Webster, examined a range of sources and found that people have used the word twice as much online in 2016 than in 2015, and that this usage spiked after Election Day by as much as 50 percent. But Americans are using it in a different way than they normally do. The country is normalizing a new use of “normalize.”

This is a kind of linguistic contagion. But according to experiment psychologist Joshua Greene, who studies the science of decision-making at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, it’s also normal. “That’s how culture works,” he says. Ideas spread, they catch on. Call it a sort of meme.

Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky says a few things are going on here. Yes, the spread of the word is in one way just the normal dissemination of words and phrases. But the viral spread of “normalize” could be happening because it strikes people as genuinely useful, he says: “Useful because it refers to things that are newly of significance.”

That notion is born out in Stamper’s data: the way people are using “normalize” in the weeks after the election differs from the way it’s usually used. Stamper notes that since the election the word is being used mostly to denote one of its secondary definitions. Its first definition is “a return to normalcy,” as in: “Relations between the US and China are normalizing,” or “Her heart rate is normalizing.” But most instances in the past two weeks use it in a different sense: the “redefinition of modern discourse to allow extreme views to be considered normal,” as a Merriam Webster blog post described the changing use of the word last week.

Actually Normal

What’s more, Stamper says, most of the time the word appears post-election, people are specifically using it to talk about Donald Trump and the racism, sexism, and xenophobia his campaign inspired. In fact, of the 106 instances of the word that appeared over the past two weeks in the News on the Web database (a corpus of online news sources compiled by Brigham and Young University), 90 of those used this formerly less common definition. And most of the time those uses originated from left-leaning sources. In other words, though “normalize” may seem to be bubbling up in the zeitgeist, it’s only the zeitgeist for some. The word is not everywhere: It’s trending among liberals. This tilt jibes with Zwicky’s hunch about the virality of the word, which he guesses “come from left-leaning people like me, people who feel that uncharitable and downright threatening behavior … has come to be treated as normal.”

Language as a means of signposting who we are is a common phenomenon. Columbia University linguist John McWhorter says that the word “normalize” is going through a the process of becoming a signifier of left-leaning ideology, as are the words “offended” and “problematic.”

“In linguistics, a term’s originating is called its actuation and that can be extended to the term’s becoming ‘a thing’ beyond where / who it was invented,” McWhorter wrote in an email. “Normalize is definitely being further actuated by the Trump victory.”

In a similar way, liberals themselves might be feeling actualized by “normalized.” The country right now feels like a strange, alienating place to many people on the losing side of the election. In that darkness, the word “normalize” becomes a way to send up a flare to others who see the world the way they do—a linguistic Bat-Signal to come together and push back against a presidency that to lots of folks feels anything but normal.

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