Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What is the "New Normal"?

An interesting yet flawed article in today's Guardian suggests that the latest financial crisis has created a "new normal". The writer and the subs seem very pleased with this phrase. It's in the headline, the first sentence and even on the website's front page. 

Don't touch a Frenchman
My first response was on Twitter:

I know every noun can be verbed, but can adjectives be nouned? Welcome to the new normal |

Some people pointed out quite rightly that "the unemployed", "the aged" and "the French" are all acceptable examples of adjectives turning into nouns, and there is a closer analogy in the variants of the fashion slogan "beige is the new black". This is a bit different. Beige, the unemployed and the French are all tangible concepts – literally in the last two cases, and almost unavoidable in the case of the unemployed if the article is to be believed, so numerous will they become. Just be sure to ask permission before touching.

But normal is so abstract a concept that it needs some explanation, and the article doesn't give it. You can talk of 'the normal' as opposed to the abnormal in respect of things or people, but a normal situation already has two nouns: the norm and normality (and Americans even use 'normalcy'). Talk of "the new normal" just sounds pretentious.

Launch your ship before you torpedo it
The writer's and the subs' pride might be justified if they had coined the phrase, but it's hardly new. As David Kenning pointed out, it was the title of a book published in 2004 about entrepreneurial possibilities in the new economy. But that book isn't on, even though a search reveals literally dozens of books using that phrase in their titles, so the reference is hardly specific.

The Guardian has forgotten one of the basic rules: your key hookline has to make some sense. Readers of Larry Elliott's article will ask themselves, "What, exactly, is the new normal?" Sadly, he doesn't tell us. He simply lists several potentially cataclysmic events arising from the latest financial crisis. 

The only conclusion we can draw from his article is that the sudden collapse of the economy is somehow going to be "normal" from now on. For any situation to become normal, it needs to be stable, yet there is nothing stable about a market crash. Fortunately, Elliot answers this puzzle at the end of the article: "The new normal is not really normal at all." In other words, he's created a theory and dismissed it without even telling anybody what it was. It's quite a feat to torpedo your own flagship while it's still on the stocks. Normally, you have to stick your arm up a heifer's backside to get such pure bullshit.

Moral: If you must use nebulous buzzwords, do explain them to the rest of us dullards.

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