This morning, in a New York Times article called “Waters Warm, and Cod Catch Ebbs in Maine,” the following sentence appears:

Fishermen, scientists and regulators often disagree over whether the current changes are temporary or the new normal.

The idiom (or cliché) “the new normal”—in the sense of the new standard of baseline expectation or experience—has occurred fairly frequently in the past ten to fifteen years, including in book titles such as The New Normal: How FDNY Firefighters Are Rising to the Challenge of Life After September 11 (2002), Assessing the New Normal: Liberty and Security for the Post–September 11 United States (January 30, 2003), After 911 in the ‘New’ Normal: Who Are We? Why Are We Here? Where Are Going? (February 1, 2003), and The New Normal: Living a Fear-Free Life in a Fear-Driven World (2005).

In her foreword to John Putzier, Weirdos in the Workplace: The New Normal—Thriving in the Age of the Individual (2004), Libby Sartain claims that the phrase “the new normal” is a recent coinage:

According to Roger McNamee, who coined the term, the new normal is a time of substantial possibilities if you are willing to play by the new rules for the long term. In the new normal it is more important to do things right than to succumb to the tyranny of urgency.

Roger McNamee, “a tech investor,” figures heavily in an article by Polly LaBarre titled “The New Normal” in Fast Company magazine (April 30, 2003), where he is quoted at length:

“Forget about the Next Big Thing,” he says. “The next thing has started. It’s called the New Normal, and 2003 will be the first full; year of it. The New Normal isn’t where you wait for the next boom. It’s about the rest of your life.”

(Or at least about the rest of your life until the next boom busts—five years later, in 2008, as it turned out.) In any event, McNamee eventually produced a book called The New Normal: Great Opportunities in a Time of Great Risk (2004), which presumably expatiates on the theme of new normality at salesworthy length.

But given that at least three books focusing on the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and using the phrase “The New Normal” in their titles had been published before the May issue of Fast Company reached newsstands—and more than 18 months before McNamee’s book came out—his claim to have coined the phrase in connection with the post–New Economy is debatable; it seems just as likely that he hitched his ideas to a phrase that was already in wide circulation following the World Trade Center bombings.

A search of Google Books, however, brings another surprise: In the years immediately after the end of World War I, a spate of books and articles addressed “the new normal” that was expected to emerge after that conflict. One of the earliest is from Henry Wise Wood, “Beware!” in National Electric Light Association Bulletin (December 1918):

To consider the problems before us we must divide our epoch into three periods, that of war, that of transition, that of the new normal, which undoubtedly will supersede the old. The questions before us, therefore, are, broadly, two: How shall we pass from war to the new normal with the least jar, in the shortest time? In that respect should the new normal be shaped to differ from the old?

Some contend that we should first envisage the new normal, and carve the measures of transition to suit its requirements. Others believe that we should cautiously feel our way through the period of transition, and arrive at what the new normal shall be by the road of experience. The first would attempt reconstruction by synthetic process; the second would achieve it by natural growth. Who shall say that a new normal, artificially compounded at this distance from the future, will work? Who shall say that a new normal, patiently sought through trial and error, will not work?

My questions:

  1. When did “the new normal” originally appear—not as an adjective phrase, as in “the new normal school,” “the new normal output” or “the new normal loss,” but as a freestanding phrase?

  2. Is there a direct historical connection between the original use of “the new normal” and the use that seems to have caught on soon after September 11, 2001? That is, did the phrase remain in use continuous use between the period of its first popularity and the period of its later resurgence, or was the phrase essentially reinvented in the twenty-first century?

  3. Is the expression traceable in either its earliest incarnation or its post-9/11 incarnation to a specific person? If so, to whom?

I am aware that an EL&U user asked What does "new normal" mean? back in December 2010. My question isn’t about what it means but when it emerged, who (if anyone) deserves credit for coining it, and whether it has emerged independently in different decades or has been in continuous use.

  • 1
    From The Christian Advocate - Volume 96, 1921 Let the Church loose itself from the destroying meshes of the old normal, and set itself resolutely and with unshakable faith for the real tasks of the present day. It is the new normal, then, that beckons the Church of God. It's pretty much "ordinary use of English", so I don't see any particular significance to unearthing the first recorded instance. – FumbleFingers Dec 16 '14 at 14:30
  • Hey, @FF, this is worth an answer (although 100 000 is an arbitrary figure hardly worth acknowledging. Hats, now ...) I hadn't realised that nouning adjectives (puce is the new lateritious; nuclear seems the way we'll have to go) had started that long ago. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 16 '14 at 15:42
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    Aside from a smattering of instances where "the new normal school" is truncated to "the new normal," the earliest instance in a Google Books search over the years 1800–1923, of "the new normal," where normal is used a noun, is from December 1917. But then a rash of such instances appear in five-year period from 1918–1922, including the one that FumbleFingers points out in a comment above. That record suggests (but does not prove) that "the new normal" with normal as a noun may not have existed in English until the twentieth century—and the cataclysm of World War I. – Sven Yargs Dec 16 '14 at 18:18

My theory is that "the new normal" in use after 9/11 is a figurative extension of a therapeutic term referring to how grieving survivors handle the loss of a loved one. From an article in Psychology Today in 2010:

The phrase "the New Normal" is a term from the ‘grief and recovery' world that I've surprised myself by taking to heart. I don't take easily to slogans. If you come at me with something along the lines of "it's all good," I promise you I will snarl. (It's not all good. Some things are less than good. Other things are just okay. Iceberg lettuce, for example, or that brown blouse I thought I liked.) I do, however, feel right at home with diagnostic language, along with family oddities like, "If my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a streetcar." Hence, my fondness for the phrase, "New Normal."

Note that the publisher of the earliest book title cited in the question, The New Normal: How FDNY Firefighters are Rising to the Challenge of Life After September 11, is Counseling Service Unit of the FDNY, 2002.

The FDNY Foundation website describes the "Counseling Service Unit" in an article:

“The mental health of our members is of the utmost importance,” said Captain Frank Leto, the Deputy Director of the FDNY Counseling Services Unit. “Being in this department for 32 years, I know firefighters and EMTs respond to the most dangerous situations, but if they’re having a problem in their family or emotionally, that’s what can stop them in their tracks. We have to make sure that everyone is operating at their optimum level.”

In other words, this early publication with "The New Normal" in the title was published by a unit dedicated to mental health, that would have been familiar with the therapeutic term described in the Psychology Today article above, and the senses in which it was used prior to 9/11 as outlined below.

Many of the uses I found prior to 9/11 fit directly into this sense, and it doesn't seem far-fetched that the sense would lend itself to figurative extension as in "the nation is grieving," hence the explosion in use post-9/11.

Here are a few uses that appeared shortly before 2001.

She said it is her aim to turn those "co-victims" into people who can live in their "new 'normal.' You know you can't go back," to life before the murder, she said. "But that doesn't mean you can't be OK. There will be a new normal. There will be a new life."

Moving backward, there is this use from 1999 that describes its own context:

Those whose loved ones have died will never get back to what Klug calls "the old normal," that is, the way things used to be. "It's a process of moving to 'the new normal,'" he says. The new normal means new habits, new routines.

Another example is from 1996 in the U.K.

The counselors talk about something called a "new normal". The aim for survivors and relatives, they say, should not be to avoid the experience of last April but to minimise the extent to which it disrupts their lives.

Because of the frequency of pre-9/11 uses relating specifically to grieving for lost loved ones, with only occasional one-off uses that are unrelated to grief, my hypothesis is that this term from the Psychology community was adopted to describe the mass-grief of a country following a shocking loss.

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    This is an interesting hypothesis, and I appreciate your effort to isolate a factor that might explain how a phrase that was in sporadic use for decades rather suddenly became very common. – Sven Yargs Dec 22 '17 at 21:34
  • Yeah, I recall "the new normal" attaining a degree of popularity in the months after 9/11. My recollection is that it was mostly used to refer to the degree of public paranoia after that event. – Hot Licks Dec 23 '17 at 1:51

I don't have an earlier date, but a Mr. Hurd, writing in the NYT used it three times in one article,

'LA GUARDIA INSISTS FEDERAL AID GO ON; Halt Next Year 'Unthinkable,' He Says, Calling for New Funds by Next Congress."

Here is a partial quotation, courtesy of BYU's COHAE:

With technological displacement, with labor-saving devices in agriculture as well as in industry, we must be prepared to meet this new normal, which means that with a complete recovery of business and industry we will still have several million employable men and women unable to find gainful, permanent employment. There is no question about that. "Now, then, it takes time to adjust or to make the necessary adjustment to meet this new normal."

  • Thanks, kdammers11. Do you have an exact date for the article? It sounds as though it may be from the mid-1930s. – Sven Yargs Jan 19 '15 at 9:59
  • @SvenYargs I found the same quote here (San Bernardino Sun, Volume 42, 25 December 1935). – Laurel Dec 10 '17 at 20:50
  • @Laurel: Thank you for nailing this down. I appreciate having an exact date for the quotation that kdammers11 found. – Sven Yargs Dec 10 '17 at 21:36

In the year 2000, I took my family to Italy for a two-week vacation. A number of problems developed before and after that time-frame that altered our way of life (I will refrain from the traumatic details). My wife was distressed about the seeming overwhelming problems and I told her that we were now living a "new normal," meaning that despite the changes we will continue to live noble lives. She has reminded me of this phrase numerous time over the years. Whether I repeated this term or came up with it on the spot, I do not recall, but the year is indisputable.

It would appear on the face of it that the word would derive meaning in either of two ways; Literally if it were new normal it would have to be a similar version of something that existed previously the other being it's classic definition since the phrase was coined. In 2017 it seems society has taken the meaning of any given word or phrase and literally/figuratively mashed it's definition into a state of vague ambiguity almost to the extent that it can no longer be immediately defined in any context.It is this "subjectiveness" that plays right into the hands of those spinning the spin so that the readers/listeners are kept in a perpetual state of confusion as to the original intent of the wording of the phrase...

  • Welcome to EL&U. The site looks for substantial answers, supported by citation. Your answer is very generalised, contains no references and expresses you own opinion. But don't give up - try an edit. – Nigel J Dec 10 '17 at 21:12

protected by tchrist Dec 11 '17 at 5:30

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