Extraordinarily normal

My gob is regularly smacked by people who are fluent in the use of English as a second language. It’s one thing to learn how to conjugate the verbs or to acquire a vocabulary. That’s largely a matter of brute practice. But how do they cope with the million tiny subtleties that make the difference between getting a warm handshake and getting a thick lip? Take the likes of “normal” and “ordinary”. At first glance from a foreign eye, I would imagine that normal and ordinary seem to mean the same thing – typical, average, usual, par for the course. And yet you can get yourself into real trouble, real fast if you don’t know what you’re doing with them. “Normal” gives us a warm glow in our tummies, like a verbal Ready Brek or Jack Daniels. We would all like our heart rate to be normal, for example. And yet we recoil like a scalded cat from being ordinary. You would look sideways at a doctor who sniffed that your heart rate was “ordinary”. How would you go about explaining the difference to a foreign language student? If they mean the same thing, how can one be good and one be bad? Well, for a start, you wouldn’t bring cardiology into it. But you might point to the antonyms. It’s not that people want to be normal; it’s that they don’t want to be abnormal. And we don’t fear being ordinary so much as we crave being extraordinary. This should clear the matter up for your foreign friend and, better yet, it will give you a chance to say “antonym” and look cleverer than you really are.

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