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In the traditional meaning, the word normalize means to take something that is outside of the normal boundaries and cause it to conform to them or to restore something to a normal state.

MW.com

transitive

1 : to make conform to or reduce to a norm or standard

2 : to make normal (as by a transformation of variables)

3 : to bring or restore to a normal condition

In the past few years, I hear this term being used more and more in the completely opposite sense, where something that is outside the norm is being made into the new normal. So that rather than the abnormal thing being forced to conform to a preexisting standard, now it means to change the standard to accommodate the abnormal.

e.g. "Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture."

We cannot allow the normalization of firearms at protests to continue

'Why We Need to Normalize Coming Out in Lacrosse'

Do Journalists "Normalize" Something by Covering It?

The 4th example even puts the word in scare quotes to indicate this is an irregular usage of the word. The term seems to be closely linked with news media that have a progressive bent to their politics. Before about five years ago, the original meaning was pretty exclusive. Now headlines use it about 50/50 old/new sense.

Does anyone know when this change began? Is it possible to trace it to an origin?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. There is also a discussion spurred by this question on meta Jul 7 '21 at 8:13
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The OED provides this citation for the sense you seem to intend here:

These attempts to normalize despotism display the impotency as well as the malignity of the Executive.

That’s from the The New York Times, from back on January 24th.

Of 1864.

That’s a century and a half ago. It’s the second-oldest citation for their sense 1a, which is:

  1. a. transitive. To make normal; to bring or return to a normal or standard condition or state.

Collins says that To normalize something is to treat it as normal or acceptable when it is not. They provide this fine example of it:

We must resist all attempts to normalize racism.

Speaking of race, during the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa last century, normalize meant to racially desegregate and remove (racial) bias from something. The OED gives several citations demonstrating such uses, although they also say these Apartheid-related senses have gone out of use down there during this our current century.

Merriam-Webster have “recently” addressed this matter of a very recent shift in focus or meaning in their article The New 'Normalize': Is the meaning of 'normalization' changing?:

It will sometimes happen that a word suddenly appears everywhere. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, two such words are currently in the ether: the verb normalize and its related noun, normalization.

The OED’s entry for normalization does include the Albert Schäffle use in the 1892 translation of his 1885 Die Aussichtslosigkeit der Sozialdemokratie (“The Impossibility of Democratic Socialism”) which was referenced by M-W. This is that OED citation:

  • 1892 A. C. Morant tr. A. E. F. Schäffle Impossib. Soc. Democracy 107
    This whole process of normalization.

The M-W article mentions:

The comedian John Oliver devoted a monologue to the suggestion that Americans resist "the normalization of Donald Trump,” and a recent article in The New Yorker titled "What Normalization Means" reflects in-depth on the mechanisms and reasons behind normalization. In these and similar pieces, the meaning is clear; it's also clearly different from the definition you'll find in our dictionary.

[...]

'Normalization' originally described a return to a state considered normal. Later, it was used to describe the act of making something variable conform to a standard. Recently, we've seen it used to describe a change in what's considered standard. In this new 'normalization', the standards change to make something considered an outlier 'normal'—not the other way around.

This seems to be the sense you’re trying to get at the history of. Collins certainly does include it, and I have the distinct feeling the OEX lexicographers feel they have it covered between those two citations. That’s in keeping with John Lawler’s comments about this being just a particular context for an existing sense.

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  • Can you provide the relevant definition from OED? I don't have a subscription. Clearly the 3rd definition from Collins is the sense I'm referring to, but there's no indication when this was added. Jul 5 '21 at 23:19
  • 1
    You've landed me here with that NYT quote. This answers my question: the latest sense became common after 2015. Jul 5 '21 at 23:41
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    I prefer the OED's approach. You can make something normal by changing it so that it conforms to the original norm, or you can do it by changing the norm so that it conforms just as it is (or a bit of both, of course). Either way you go from a situation where it does not count as normal to one where it does. That's got to be normalization. NB criminalization always means changing the norm so that the behaviour is criminal, never changing the behaviour to bring it within an existing norm (or not unless we are being Orwellian).
    – rchivers
    Jul 5 '21 at 23:51
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    @rchivers The OED seems to think the 1864 citation and the 1885/1892 one count as this same thing. So that's certainly older. M-W addresses the explosive popularity of this sense following what happened in 2016.
    – tchrist
    Jul 5 '21 at 23:53
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    Yes, that's what I was agreeing with and that's possibly why it feels older, i.e. it's always been there in principle, just less used. There are words that can't really be used this way though, e.g. radicalize can only mean changing someone's outlook / behaviour so that it counts as radical by our existing standards, not changing what counts as radical so that what they have been doing all along comes to be seen that way.
    – rchivers
    Jul 5 '21 at 23:57

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