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the rogue linguist

Can No One – Other Than the Dutch – Act Normal Anymore?

Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands

If I put my hands like this, does it look ‘normal’?

Photo: Sebastiaan ter Burg

“Sometimes it seems as though no one behaves normally any more,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently wrote in an open letter to the Dutch people (see here for the Economist’s take). In the space of just 540 words he – or his writers – manage to use the word normal no fewer than 11 times.

Act normal or get out

Naturally, there’s the classic Dutch imperative to “act normal” (doe normaal), this time in the form of a choice: “act normal or get out” – at which point it becomes clear who is really being addressed: people who “have come to our land for freedom” and who “don’t want to adjust.”

Next he exhorts the Dutch “to continue making crystal clear what is and is not normal in our country.”

“Normal” things, he says, include working for your money, respecting teachers, and shaking hands (presumably a reference to the time an imam from Tilburg refused to shake hands with politician Rita Verdonk).

By contrast, people who are “not normal” dump trash on the street, spit, and otherwise behave antisocially, for example by “hanging around in groups” and harassing people or provoking them in vlogs.

Everyday people

In discussing this, my Dutch family-in-law asked what the terms normale mensen or gewone mensen would be in English.

Literally, they translate to “normal people”, maybe “the average person.” But, I found myself saying, I think politicians would avoid the use of “normal.” Many people see the proverbial “average Joe” as exclusionary – at least “the American people” can appeal to everyone.

Or is it less about political correctness on principle, and more the practical matter that having an enormously diverse population means the imperative to “act normal” immediately raises the question, what is normal?

Indeed, it seems we find it easier to pin down what’s not normal.

In a New York Times op-ed late last year entitled “Donald Trump, this is not normal”, Charles Blow used the word 9 times in under 900 words, all in the context of “not normal.”

It’s not normal, for example, to have a president who “does not have time for daily intelligence briefings” but apparently does for “staging a photo-op with a troubled rapper and twilight-tweeting insults like a manic insomniac.”

Donald Trump robot

Interpretation of a human being

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Of course, the new president himself has thrown the normal playbook out the window. But even he sticks to using normal mainly in the negative.

Not normal

In a corpus of campaign speeches delivered between the Republican convention and the election, he describes the actions of the San Bernadino killers “beyond just normal”. Likewise, he calls the “movement” to elect him “not just a normal situation.”

In perhaps the only thing they have ever agreed on, Hillary Clinton says in a comparable corpus “this is not a normal election”, and never uses normal in the positive sense (Trump does so only once, in the sense of “normal stuff” like buying a house in Palm Beach for $40 million and selling it to a Russian for $100 million).

Meanwhile Barack Obama, in a corpus of his presidential speeches, uses the term only in the sense of “normalizing” relations with countries like Cuba.

So the more liberal one’s political leanings, the greater the aversion to normal?

Mark Rutte is undoubtedly a liberal – but then, the Dutch pride themselves on being less politically correct than what they call “the natives” (English speakers). Take the ongoing brouhaha over Zwarte Piet – it was Rutte, after all, who said: “Black Pete is black, not much we can do about that.”

alison-edwards-the-rogue-linguist

Alison Edwards PhD

I am an independent researcher, translator, editor, writer, and lover of tennis, infrastructure, and collared shirts done all the way up. Read more

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