“New normal” and other words we used a lot this year

Once again, I turned to Ngrams, a Google tool launched in 2009 by part of the Google Books team. Ngrams shows how books and other pieces of literature have used certain words or phrases over time, and you can chart their popularity throughout the years. One caveat: Ngrams currently tracks data from 1800 to 2019 — prior to 2020, Ngrams’ data ranged from 1800 to 2012, but the team added a huge new dataset about two years ago. So while it remains to be seen how some sayings took over writing throughout 2020 and 2021, I wanted to see how the words we’re hearing and saying and writing today have shown up over time.

My first nomination: “new normal.” This is a phrase that I personally have heard…well, now more than ever, I suppose. This isn’t the first time “new normal” appeared in the lexicon, though: You can see it began to see small bursts of usage in literature and other writing in the mid-19th century — though if you use Ngrams to see some of the examples of how it showed up, “new normal” was often in reference to types of academic institutions. And then “new normal” just sort of faded away…until the aughts, when it dramatically rose. Michael Ballback, who works on Google Books, told me that a lot of post-2000s data added comes from e-books, whereas older data mostly came from libraries, so perhaps this could account for some of the jump. In any case, today it now completely permeates our writing. (Which raises the question: Is there such a thing as normal if they’re constantly new?)

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