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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    $\begingroup$ There are way too many things in mathematics called "normal," "regular," etc. $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2014 at 6:22
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    $\begingroup$ math.stackexchange.com/questions/328662/… --- normalis already meant right-angled in classical Latin. $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2014 at 7:16
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    $\begingroup$ 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...) $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2014 at 8:33
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    $\begingroup$ Can I suggest this to be moved to Linguistics.SE? $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Jun 26, 2014 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ @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'. $\endgroup$
    – Charles
    Jun 26, 2014 at 20:35

3 Answers 3


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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    $\begingroup$ Math unrelated: Does rectum [end of intestines] does anything to do with being right? $\endgroup$
    – jnovacho
    Jun 26, 2014 at 9:04
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    $\begingroup$ @jnovacho --- "rectum" : shortened from New Latin "rectum intestinum" the straight intestine $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2014 at 9:50
  • $\begingroup$ @jnovacho yes, the both are from PIE root o̯reĝ- (o̯reĝtos = right, correct, o̯reĝti = guides, directs, o̯reĝs = king, o̯reĝi̯om = kingdom etc) $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Jun 26, 2014 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ @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? $\endgroup$ Jun 26, 2014 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ @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"? $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Jun 26, 2014 at 11:54

Perhaps it should be mentioned that while normalis did mean perpendicular in classical Latin, it was not the only possible (and perhaps not the preferred) choice of words.

I asked about expressing perpendicularity in classical Latin at the new Latin Language SE site. The answer given there lists a number of expressions, mainly from Vitruvius:

  • πρὸς ὀρθᾶς — yes, this Greek expression was used in Latin.
  • ad normam — according to norma, a square employed by carpenters, masons, etc., for making right angles.
  • ad perpendiculum — according to perpendiculum, a plumb-line
  • ad perpendiculum et normam — combination of the previous two
  • directus — "straight", essentially the same as rectus used in the medieval commentary Carlo mentions

There is a finite amount of extant Latin literature and perpendicularity is not the most common of subjects, so it is difficult to tell what exactly are the differences between these phrases in usage or frequency. The examples listed above, apart from directus, mean "orthogonally". For the adjective "orthogonal" one might use directus, rectus or indeed normalis. Vitruvius does not use the word normalis at all.

Notice that norma and perpendiculum are two different tools used to create straight angles, not geometrical descriptions of the angle itself.

I am not aware of any ancient mathematical texts in Latin, either original or translations. It would be interesting to see which expression would be chosen in mathematical context. If you know any suitable sources, consider answering "Where to find ancient mathematics in Latin?".

(The phrase mentioned in Carlo's answer can be found in the Perseus service together with an English translation in a more readable and searchable form.)


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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    $\begingroup$ Do you have any basis for this suggestion for the etymology, or is it simply "you guess it might be so"? $\endgroup$ Jun 28, 2014 at 11:26
  • $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$
    – krowe
    Jun 29, 2014 at 4:23

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