On Ordinarity

Posted: April 30, 2010 in Braak, poetics, Threat Quality

Is that a word?  Ordinarity?  The quality of being ordinary?  Chrome’s spell-check prefers Ordinariness, but I don’t like that one as much.

Anyway, I watched some plays last weekend, some one-acts by David Ives.  I am, generally, not a huge fan of David Ives — I think his premises habitually go on about thirty percent longer than they should, and that his insights into life and the human condition are on the banal side.  (Quick digression:  American Heritage Dictionary lists three acceptable pronunciations of “banal”:  to rhyme with canal, to rhyme with anal, and to rhyme with panel.  Which one do you like?)

One of the one-acts is a monologue — this one I really liked — about a guy that is, deep down, secretly a typewriter.  Here’s the thing, though, that I found really interesting:  the very first line of the monologue is something like, “I know what you’re thinking.  You look at at me and you’re thinking there’s a regular, ordinary guy.”

I find this fascinating because, of course, I wasn’t.  No one ever looks at anyone and thinks to themselves, “Well, that’s guy looks pretty ordinary,” do they?  “Ordinary” is the adjective that you use when you’re trying to describe somebody and you’ve already run through all of the available adjectives in your vocabulary and can’t find anything that fits.  “Ordinary” is what you’re left with when you can’t describe someone.

But more than that, you don’t use “ordinary” unless you have to — if a guy has a huge wart on his face, you might look at him and think, “Whoah!  Huge wart!”  If a woman were eight feet tall you might look at her and think, “Whoah!  She’s unusually tall.”  But you’d hardly look at something ordinary and think to yourself, “Whoah!  How perfectly ordinary!”

That’s really the definition of ordinary, I guess.  How do you know how ordinary something is?  Well, look at it.  If you don’t notice anything, you’ve found ordinary.

I just think the way that we describe things is interesting; I talk to friends of mine who are women or who are black (or who are black women!!!) and we have discussions about what “privilege” means, and what a privileged perspective is.  If you’re a white guy, I suppose it stands to reason that if you see another white guy, you might not notice is white-guyness, and thus you might think he was ordinary.  It’s not wholly unreasonable that we presume similarity to ourselves as ordinariness.

Is the same true if you’re a black guy?  I realized that, in my book, I don’t always mention a character’s skin color (because, well, why should I?).  If you were a black man reading that book, would you assume that, in the absence of other defining characteristics — of explicitly mentioned descriptors — that a character is white, or black?

Is ordinarity connected to personal likeness, or is it actually culturally imposed?

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    As an experiment I typed “ordinary” into a Google Image search, expecting to find a good picture example.

    Other than “A Life Less Ordinary” and “Ordinary People”, all the other pictures seemed to be representations of “out of the ordinary.” Which may be score another point for the idea that there’s really no such thing as “ordinary.”

    (We really ARE all beautiful, original snowflakes!)

    On the upside: I scanned three pages of image results and didn’t find a single fucked-up porn shot, and I think that’s a victory in and of itself.

  2. Hsiang says:

    Oh, you and your insightfulness.

    Way back when I was a wannabe cartoonist, several people noted that most of my characters (that weren’t bizarre aliens or anthropomorphisms (no, I am not a Furry, just had a phase when I like drawing punk-rock rat people) looked like they had Asian characteristics.

    Coulda’ knocked me over with a feather.

    This was before the total onslaught of manga upon these shores (hooboy, there’s another folderol about racial imagery, no?). I have to admit that a lot of my characters, even portraits of my friends tended to raise the cheekbones and include a bit of epicanthic fold.

    Odd that, in the continuminuminum of racial mixes I appear less Asian then the majority of Hapas (that’s the bitchin’ cool term for people of mixed Asian descent, yo). In fact, most people in my neighborhood mistake me for a Very Pale Mexican. Which is terribly sad because even after 4 years of High School classes and 20 years of Deep Immersion, my Spanish really sucks.
    But I digress, constantly.

    It’s odd, when reading a novel I usually picture a character as Caucasian despite my own nature, or surroundings: San Francisco is hella diverse, but white boys still run everything. There have been some books where a key character’s Non-Cauc ethnicity is revealed subtly later in the plot.
    I so dig that. Off hand I can only think of Starship Troopers, the other titles are on the tip of my tongue, as is this bottle of bourbon. hic.

    In closing: to me, “banal” rhymes with “panel” but with the accent upon the second syllable. Perhaps closer to “annul”, but with less “uh”.

    @ Holland: I offer my best wishes in your quest for the Porndinary.

  3. Jeff Holland says:


    Well. Now we need to go ahead and prep that for the Urban Dictionary. But, hopefully, I won’t have to use it very often. Though now I think maybe I’ve been waiting for that word for a very long time. This may require further thought.

    RE: Banal pronunciation – I have heard, and generally “hear” in my head, it as bah-naaal. That’s right, three A’s. You really want to draw the vowel sound out as much as you can, to show just how unimpressed you are by a subject, to call it banal.

  4. Dmart says:

    Also, that’s how I pronounce “banal”.

  5. braak says:

    I used to pronounce “banal” the French way, but was always bothered by how it was such a fancy-pants way of pronouncing a word that means “painfully ordinary.” So, I switched to the “anal” pronunciation, because then the sound of the word and its meaning felt more concomitant.

  6. dagocutey says:

    I totally look at people and determine their “ordinarity” — in malls, in airports, on the street, at work — all the time! Although I’ve never used that particular “word”, I doubt that I’m alone in this. And it’s totally cultural, and not necessarily linked to personal likeness at all. Example: I was walking into a theatre downtown with a white friend who grew up in a, ahem, racially homogeneous town. A black man with his hair in micro braids walked past, and my friend chuckled under his breath and said, “Oh god, what was he thinking?” Not only is that hairstyle totally normal for a black guy, it tends to look odd on a white guy. (Now, you know what I’m talking about.) And although it’s nothing like my hair, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it to me.
    And I also pronounce the word “BAY-nul”, since you asked.

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