Special Collections

What is Normal?

An inquiry into the origins of the (term) Normal School.
By Renee DesRoberts

The idea of the Normal School has been around since the mid-19th- century in the United States, and it is common knowledge that a Normal School was where teachers were trained in their craft. But where did the use of "Normal School" come from? The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest date regarding the use of this term is in 1793/4 in which the French term école normale is introduced as a school for the training of teachers.

The etymology of the term itself traces backwards from its latin root to the French and then was translated from French into English. The French word ÉCOLE (escole) traces from the latin SCHOLA1 which means "a place where learned disputations are carried on, a school.2 " It was first used around the end of the 11th-century. The word NORMALE (norme) traces from the latin NORMA3 which was at first "a carpenter's square for measuring right angles" which then also came to mean "any rule, standard4" and traces from 1160.

The translation, then, from Cassell's French Dictionary, of "training college", therefore makes good sense, as it was where future teachers not only learned their craft but also learned the standards by which to teach their pupils. The école normale, in the French education system, was in the group of schools after "high school" and before "university", which also included various professional schools.

1Albert Dauzat, Jean Dubois, and Henri Mitterand, Nouveau Dictionnaire Étymologique et Historique (Paris: Librarie Larousse, 1964), 253.
2D.P.Simpson, M.A., Cassell's New Latin Dictionary (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1959), 538.
3Dauzat, Dubois, and Mitterand, 497.
4Simpson, 396.