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How and when did the word "normal" acquire this meaning? When I first thought of this, I couldn't really come up with any explanation that wasn't complete speculation -- pretty much all I was able to see was that it isn't any stranger than "right" in "right angle" -- the angle is probably as right as the lines are normal. But on reading the etymology note in the entry for "normal" in the American Heritage Dictionary,

Middle English, from Late Latin normalis, from Latin, made according to the square, from norma, carpenter's square;

I thought that was probably it -- it probably came from the perpendicular sides of a carpenter's square. Did it then? And how was it introduced? If this is indeed what's going on, either the meaning must have been introduced long ago, when people still realized what the etymology of "normal" is, or some really erudite mathematician must have introduced it, perhaps to show off their erudition.

So how did it happen?

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There are way too many things in mathematics called "normal," "regular," etc. – Monroe Eskew Jun 26 '14 at 6:22
4… --- normalis already meant right-angled in classical Latin. – Carlo Beenakker Jun 26 '14 at 7:16
So now we should ask the converse question: if normal originally meant right-angled, how did it come to mean ordinary? (Although that is probably a question for another place than MO...) – Ketil Tveiten Jun 26 '14 at 8:33
@KetilTveiten: Both meanings were present when the word entered the English language. Latin normalis referred literally to a builder's square but carried the secondary meaning of 'things conforming to the usual rules' which eventually gave way to the modern meaning of 'normal'. – Charles Jun 26 '14 at 20:35
You might also look up "regular" and "rule", which both come ultimately from Latin "regula", original meaning a straight piece of wood. – Robert Israel Jun 30 '14 at 5:45
up vote 57 down vote accepted

normalis already meant right-angled in classical Latin; for example, angulus normalis appears in the first century text De institutione oratoria (volume XI, paragraph 3.141) by Marcus Fabius Quintilianus.

In a commentary on this text from the fifteenth century this early use of the word "normalis" is explained as "rectus", see screenshot:

"Angulus normalis est idem qui angulus rectus" = "a normal angle is the same as a right angle"

In response to Ketil Tveiten's question: "How did normal come to mean ordinary" : according to this source, the meaning of normal as conforming to common standards seems to be of recent origin (1828?).

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Math unrelated: Does rectum [end of intestines] does anything to do with being right? – jnovacho Jun 26 '14 at 9:04
@jnovacho --- "rectum" : shortened from New Latin "rectum intestinum" the straight intestine – Carlo Beenakker Jun 26 '14 at 9:50
@jnovacho yes, the both are from PIE root o̯reĝ- (o̯reĝtos = right, correct, o̯reĝti = guides, directs, o̯reĝs = king, o̯reĝi̯om = kingdom etc) – Anixx Jun 26 '14 at 10:16
@Anixx: I’m struggling to reconcile your notation with common notation in PIE phonology. When you write “o̯”, do you mean “u̯”, one of the laryngeals, or something else? When you write “ĝ”, do you mean “ǵ”, “gʷ”, or either of these aspirated? – Emil Jeřábek Jun 26 '14 at 11:46
@Emil Jeřábek o̯ is the laryngeal, ĝ is "palatal" or something(nobody knows what it was in reality). The later notation is common (e.g. as in Mallory & Adams, Fortson etc), so what are you referring to as "common notation"? – Anixx Jun 26 '14 at 11:54

I addition to what has been said I would also like to point out that Geometry began as a tool for construction. When building, almost all corners are right angles. In other words a 'standard' corner is a right angle. When you think of it in these terms the common usage of the word normal is a metaphor. For example, "I normally get chocolate ice cream" could be phrased "I build walls at right angles with about the same frequency as I choose chocolate ice cream".

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Do you have any basis for this suggestion for the etymology, or is it simply "you guess it might be so"? – GreenAsJade Jun 28 '14 at 11:26
AFAIK, it is a myth. I originally heard the story from a high school math teacher who prefaced it by saying that the actual meaning was lost to time and this was just one possibility. I don't think it matters though because this is the best way I know of to understand the relation which is what really matters IMHO. – krowe Jun 29 '14 at 4:23

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