Verbal Energy

The real regular and the new normal

The passing of the designer of New York's iconic coffee cups leads the Monitor's language columnist to mull the shifting meaning of 'regular.'

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From my writers' group I have learned, albeit some weeks after the fact, of the passing of Leslie Buck, the man who designed those "We are happy to serve you" paper coffee cups that were once ubiquitous in diners and take-out eateries around New York City.

I can always count on my monthly kaffeeklatsches with my fellow scribes to surface the news items that really matter. I actually did a little further research afterward, and I can tell you of a verity that a former United States senator would be lucky to get such an obituary as The New York Times gave the late Mr. Buck.

With their Greek motifs and blue-and-white color scheme, Buck's cups became an icon of New York City. (How apt that icon, too, comes from Greek.) His classic design is out of regular production, but lives on in ceramic form at souvenir stands and elsewhere. Inserted into the set of any number of Big Apple police dramas, this cup has worked to suggest to millions of TV viewers that they know New York.

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From the demise of the paper-cup genius, our conversation turned to the question of what is or was put in those cups, and how it needs to be described when ordered. Regular, we concluded, doesn't mean what it used to. Nowadays it often refers to the presence or absence of caffeine.

It used to refer primarily to the presence or absence of cream and sugar, as a function of geography. I will not go into detail here. There are entire Web pages devoted to this issue. Welcome to the (Way Too Much) Information Age.

But here's another way to look at regular and its ever-morphing meaning: It's the deli-counter equivalent of what the IT world knows as "default settings."

Regular means, fundamentally, following a rule.

Regular came into English late in the 14th century to describe priests serving not in a parish but rather in a religious order, that is, following "the rule" of St. Dominic or whomever. Irregular has been used since 1747, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, to refer to a soldier "not of the regular army" – a guerrilla. This has led, by extension, to Sherlock Holmes's Baker Street Irregulars or the late William Safire's Lexicographic Irregulars.

A "rule" (regulus in Latin) is often an abstract principle, but the word's concrete meaning lives on, too. "A measuring stick consisting of a strip of wood or metal or plastic with a straight edge that is used for drawing straight lines and measuring lengths" is the first "quick definition" of rule at Onelook.com. The physical thing is commonly known as a ruler, but rule lives on in terms such as "carpenter's rule" or "printer's rule."

Normal is another word to describe a "default setting," although it has just a whiff of the clinical about it. ("Is that really normal?")

If regular is rooted in the carpenter's rule, where does normal come from? It comes from the Latin word for a carpenter's square – norma – which was apparently the term English carpenters used from the 17th century onward, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Methinks it's a high-toned carpenter who speaks Latin, but maybe in those days it wasn't that hard to find a true Renaissance man.

The rules, and the norms, keep changing. But our sense of what's "regular" and what's "normal" remains anchored in the straight-line metaphors of the carpenter's rule and the carpenter's square.

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