There’s a lot of normal stuff going on right now. Last week, for instance, the Jan 6 committee heard that the staff of the tottering Trump White House had divided itself into Team Crazy (guys urging the defeated President to retain power through fraud and violence) and Team Normal (those asking if he would mind awfully if he didn’t).

Then, as if acting as warm-up man for the coming entreaclement of Luton Airport’s runway, the UK’s former energy and climate change minister, Sir John Hayes, went on Radio 4 to argue that all this fuss over a heatwave showed that “we’ve lost our sense of what’s normal”. (“I can remember the summer of 1975,” he declared, puzzling anyone who could remember the summer of 1976.) Three days later, his home county sent a four-wheeled gritter named Spreaddie Mercury to discharge itself over Lincolnshire roads liquefying at a record-breaking 56.3°C.

Then, just as I was about to finish this piece, Esquire magazine revealed that Chris Evans — the Knives Out one not the TFI Friday one — had been detected trying to “normalise” something. When you hear about things being normalised, it’s usually in reference to lying or racism or toxic masculinity, but thankfully Evans had just decided to go to the premiere of The Gray Man wearing a white vest under his suit jacket. “The normalisation of sexy, sexy menswear,” the mag confirmed, “has been coming for some time.”

At our moment in history, is the word “normal” exhausted beyond use? Is it time to retire it? We expect it to do so much. The normality of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, for example, resides in its characters’ struggles with mental illness; the novel argues for the ordinariness and ubiquity of experiences that fiction might once have treated as exceptional. It’s not the same normal as Planet Normal, the Daily Telegraph podcast that offers views on Covid policy that are not broadly shared by either the public or the scientific community. So what, if anything, does it now mean?

These are questions for Sarah Chaney, research fellow at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions, which in recent years has produced exciting work on British weeping, shame in early modern Spain, and Busman’s stomach (a psychosomatic disorder that troubled double-decker drivers around the time of the 1937 Coronation). Chaney’s new book, Am I Normal? takes a single term and, like a long, chatty entry from Raymond Williams’s classic Keywords (1976), traces its sources and explores the different uses to which it has been put.

Her first lesson about “normal” as we understand it today is that its history is short. In essence, her book is an account of an escape. In 1800, “normal” was a mathematical term designating a straight line perpendicular to the tangent. But in 1840, along came Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian astronomer and statistician who loosed the term into the space of a new discipline he called “social physics”. (Auguste Comte had thought of it first, but coined another word — “sociology” — to ensure nobody confused their work.) Taking data on the chest measurements of 5,738 Scottish soldiers from a two-decades-old copy of the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, Quetelet plotted these numbers on a graph to produce an average chest size, rather as astronomers used multiple readings to establish the length of a planetary orbit. As revolution brought chaos and disruption to Belgium, Quetelet found that on paper, all measurable human qualities — from height and weight to propensity for suicide — fell into the quiet and simple order of the bell curve. We still call this “normal distribution”.

Quetelet knew that his calculations were not offering a simple description of reality. The average soldier who emerged from his numbers did not exist. Not all who followed in his footsteps were so clear-sighted. As Todd Rose relates in The End of Average, the spectral figure of the average man led US Air Force designers to produce a generation of jet planes with cockpits that fitted nobody. (It’s also why nuclear families are easier to find in adverts than censuses.)

There’s another story here that’s just as big. Chaney spells out the problem with the data itself: it shows an enormous bias towards white middle-class individuals, who comprise less than 12% of the world’s population, but make up 80% of subjects in medical studies and 96% of subjects in psychological ones. The normal isn’t just a phantom; it’s one raised from the experience of a minority. Yet it is used to create standards for a world in which everyone must live.

Quetelet’s work generated a universe of good and ghastly work based on averages — the Body Mass Index, typologies of criminals, Florence Nightingale’s hospital reforms, John Snow’s discovery of the waterborne nature of cholera, the IQ test, the Kinsey Report into the sex habits of Americans, eugenic projects from Francis Galton to the Nazis.

Amazingly, Am I Normal? suggests that the data didn’t even have to be real in order to have an impact. For instance, statistics about the poor physical state of British recruits to the Anglo-Boer War are often credited for starting the process that gave us the 1904 Committee on Physical Deterioration, free school milk and — eventually — the National Health Service. The numbers are scary. 8,000 of the 11,000 men who volunteered in Manchester, it was said, were unfit to serve. Chaney uses a 2008 paper by the medical historian Vanessa Heggie to show that this figure has no source but the rambling polemics of Arnold White, a failed Liberal parliamentary candidate with a thing for antisemitic conspiracy theories. (“When we survey other nations,” he wrote in Efficiency and Empire (1901), we “perceive how weakness, self-indulgence, want of foresight, self-respect, culture and industry are enabling astute, industrious, or unscrupulous Jews to destroy the power of whole classes.”) A culture convinced of its own declining state did not ask for White’s receipts. It had a picture of itself that matched its prejudices.

But Chaney’s work also yields a warning about making the same kind of mistake about the past. In one of her chapters, she uses the brutal practice of the clitoridectomy to illustrate how 19th-century medicine attempted to regulate female sexuality. The operation, she argues, was “a cure for sexual desire” that “acquired a dubious reputation after the discrediting of its main advocate, gynaecologist Isaac Baker Brown, in 1867”. She is not the first to use Brown to tell a story about normality imposed by a surgical blade — but I’m not sure whether the facts really serve her thesis.

Scandal erupted around Brown when it was revealed that he had been operating on patients without consent. The subsequent inquiry also allowed his peers to pass judgement on the procedure itself. They used words such as “barbarous”, “quackery” and “terrorism”. I can find only one example of an English doctor other than Baker who ever carried out it out. It was the opposite of normal. It was shockingly extreme.

Moreover, the case that brought Brown down was not the one that we might naturally imagine – a Victorian wife punished for her desires. The central figure in the affair, Mary Hancock, suffered from severe bouts of mental illness. She saved pus from her blisters in a gallipot, believed that she was turning into a crystal, imagined that she was Princess Charlotte of Wales, who had died in childbirth in 1817. Her doctors were concerned about what they perceived as a manic sexual energy, but marriage, not mutilation, seems to have been their preferred cure.

All this became a matter for the courts only when her husband, Robert Peaty, fought, unsuccessfully, to save her from the machinations of her family, who wanted to annul the marriage for financial gain. As the astonished press coverage indicates, there was nothing normal about any of this (except, perhaps, the punishment meted out to the doctor who cut Mary Hancock with steel scissors of his own design). A misplaced scholarly tradition of seeing the clitoridectomy as an exemplar of Victorian cruelty may be the only reason that Chaney implies otherwise.

Ironically, Am I Normal? is just the sort of book that might save a researcher from error. Its pages are full of implied warnings against the unquestioning use of data, particularly when it fits preconceived ideas too neatly. But as Raymond Williams reminds us, this is hazardous work. Many of the entries in Keywords begin by saying that the term under discussion is “one of the most difficult words in the language”. “Normal” is not on his list. But, as Chaney demonstrates, it merits the same careful handling. It’s a word that imposes a false picture of the world and may sometimes cause us much pain. But it’s one for which we’re grateful when we’re trying to work out how many Paracetamol to take, or how to read a red hot weather forecast.

A few weeks ago, a clip of the scruffy CBBC personality Hacker T. Dog went viral. It was a short moment from a 2016 TV show in which he made a strange emphatic statement to his co-presenter, Lauren Layfield. “We’re normal men!” he declared. “We’re just innocent men.” Layfield, her face close to his snout, dissolved into incapable laughter.

Hacker is a little glove puppet with button eyes, but this was probably a more intelligent and sensible deployment of the word “normal” than the examples at the beginning of this piece. It demonstrated its meaninglessness and its power. It showed how a young and promiscuous concept has exerted such a powerful influence on our lives — despite being fragile to the point of absurdity.

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