Normob: is this the ugliest word not yet to enter the English language?

The words we use to talk about people quickly come to constrain the ways we relate to them, so it’s with mounting alarm that I see the spread of the word “normob” – a contraction of “normal mobile user”.

It started here, and has spawned this and this, and has even been taken up here. But before you’re tempted to drop this particular neologism into your zeitgeisty telecoms discourse, just stop for a moment and listen to yourself. This must surely be one of the ugliest words not yet to enter our language. I am not alone in my unease.

Let’s begin with the sound it makes, from the drawn out drone of the “nor” to the lumpen ending “ob” and with little to improve matters in between. Just to hear this word is an aural assault, like travelling on a defective Tube train.

Then there are the connotations packed into those innocuous-looking six letters. Here they are annotated, with apologies to users of screen readers [what must it be like to hear “norrr-mob” read out by a computer?] and anyone called Norman…

normob annotated

Sound and connotation are depressing enough. It gets worse when we consider the actual meaning of “normob” , and all the more so because I have no doubt that those who wield the word do so with the best of intentions. Often the term is used to show affinity with the common people, an appreciation that not everyone has the latest phone and an unlimited data plan. Normob is also used, though less frequently, in the opposite way: to express wonder that geeks no longer have a monopoly on advanced mobile services. Both sentiments show a commendable degree of insight, an ability to understand that others think and behave differently to one’s self.

So why do I find this term so lacking in respect for its subjects?

“Normal”. Normal smoothes out the wrinkles that make us all delightfully different. Normal takes us all down to the lowest common denominator, it reduces people to a collection of common behaviours which have little to do with the things about which they are passionate. And anyway, normal what? Consumer or business, male or female, old or young, from Britain or Brazil? All these distinctions are swept under the carpet in this vast undifferentiated swathe of normality. Finally this use of “normal” implies that the abnormal are superior: magicians, not muggles in the world of technological wizardry.

And “mobile users”. Well there’s nothing wrong with the idea of “mobile users” per se, except that as an identifier it is so banal that for most it goes without mention. When did you last meet someone at a party who introduced themselves as a “mobile user”? “A teacher”, maybe, “Alfie’s dad” perhaps, “in IT” or “a little bit drunk” even, but “a mobile user”? Me and two thirds of Planet Earth’s entire human population.

What to use instead, you may ask. Well if you need to make a general point about normal mobile users, given that there are now getting on for 4 billion of them, I have a suggestion. It’s a simple term, one of the 159 highest frequency English words taught to Year 1 primary pupils, no less. It’s a human term, and it carries no baggage. For “normob”, just say “people”.

Update: this post generated quite a discussion over at Mobile Industry Review.

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