A WORD IN THE HAND: NORM
A world without norms is not worth raising a glass to
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
Being contrary creatures, most humans go through a patch when we are thoroughly dissatisfied with our given names.
Some take matters into their own hands. In February 1956, the actress known as Marilyn Monroe – which had been her stage name since 1946 – signed papers that made this state of home affairs legal, thereby officially bumping off Norma Jeane Mortenson.
It took Elton Hercules John (birth name Reginald Kenneth Dwight) to make the name Norma popular again. For a while after his song Candle in the Wind hit the airwaves there were tons of babies called Norma and even a few adults who shed Warren and Janice to be reborn as Norma and Norma.
In the late 80s and early 90s I seriously considered changing my name to Norman. Nothing to do with poor old Marilyn – it was because I longed to walk into a bar in Boston (or anywhere, for that matter) and have everyone shout, “Norm!”Norm (full name Hilary Norman Peterson) was the character played by George Wendt in Cheers, the sitcom that ran for 11 years (only Seinfeld has beaten that record, as far as I am aware). After retiring it gave birth to the most popular spin-off show of all time, Frasier.Cheers was the name of the bar where everyone knew Norm’s name (except snooty original barmaid Diane, who insisted on calling him Norman) and they made sure he knew they knew it.
It occurred to me only recently, while puzzling over a foreign paper’s use of the word “katenorm”, that Norm was not called Norm because it was an abbreviation of Norman, which in turn was preferable to the first name he’d inherited from his grandfather.
He was called Norm because he was reliability incarnate, a man around whom you could relax because everything made sense and was, in a word, normal.
There’s nothing normal about the word “norm”, however.
Whether it is used to mean an average standard or a rule governing behaviour, it was born “norma”, the Latin word for a carpenter’s square. No wonder Marilyn picked Marilyn.Norman, however (originally “Northman”), comes from the name of those Scandinavian blokes who conquered first Normandy and then England. Wouldn’t they be chuffed to know that almost 1,000 years later another famous Norman would make them proud by running up the most enormous bar bill known to pubkind.
Incidentally, one of my favourite Asterix books as a child was Asterix and the Normans, which starred a longship full of almost-fearless blonde warriors who wore horned hats and cooked everything in cream sauce and were called Olaf, Nescaf, Timandahaf and Toocleverbyhaf.
But let’s get back to “katenorm”, which is what Telegraph columnist Shane Watson has decided is the word that best describes the cheerful, cottony and admirably cheap clothing choices of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who like Norm is better known by the diminutive version of her name.As Frasier was from Cheers, katenorm is a spin-off from normcore, a word invented in 2013 by a trend-forecasting company called K-hole. (If it wasn’t already disturbing enough that trend forecasting is an actual profession, giving an organisation a name like that is just abnormal.)
Normcore describes the style of clothing that says precisely nothing. Khaki is its primary colour, elastic its currency and button-down its religion. Normcore is not understated. It is tone-deaf. Kate’s husband the prince is often cited as the very essence of normcore.
Like Will, Norm Peterson is proof that normcore has immense charm. Whether it is a place, a person, a pub or a pair of chinos, we all want something we know will never change, something solid, reliable, and deeply, comfortingly boring.
Cheers without Norm, like a world without norms, would be a place too horrible to contemplate. Although, come to think of it, French sociologist Émile Durkheim did contemplate it quite closely (he also spent a lot of time thinking about suicide).Durkheim envisaged a state of normlessness where no one knew how to behave anymore, where people picked their noses in public and forgot each other’s names. He called this slippery situation “anomie”, a word still highly favoured in the highbrow discourse of the metarati.
But as Norm might have said to the bar at large after just one more beer: “With friends like these, who needs anomie?”
Incidentally, “norm” was the first word said by Frederick Crane, son of Frasier and Lilith. Since his parents were psychiatrists this was probably a word Frederick picked up while they were discussing their patients in front of him, but it is also entirely possible that the infant Crane, like everyone else, just knew Norm’s name.