Despite the word’s sporadic track record before 1920, Harding was frequently quizzed about his supposed coinage. After securing the Republican nomination in July and invoking “normalcy” again in his homecoming speech back in Ohio, Harding was pressed on his use of the word by an assemblage of reporters. “I have noticed that word caused considerable newspaper editors to change it to ‘normality,’” he responded defensively. “I have looked for ‘normality’ in my dictionary and I do not find it there. ‘Normalcy,’ however, I find, and it is a good word.” (Harding may have been referring to an old version of Webster’s unabridged dictionary, which indeed included normalcy and not normality. But if he had consulted the latest edition of Webster’s, or any other major dictionary of the day, he would have had no trouble finding normality.)
Harding’s apologia for normalcy was met with jeers by critics. “The friends of Senator Harding are defending his language now by saying that ‘normalcy’ is a perfectly good word,” a columnist in the New Orleans States wrote that August. “Well, so is ‘jackasstical,’ when applied to fantastic verbiage.” The Daily Mail of Charleston, West Virginia, was more supportive, appealing to the dictionary definition, “the state or fact of being normal”: “This is what Senator Harding means when he employs a word little used but expressive of the idea which he wishes to convey.”
Regardless of the linguistic sniping, enough voters agreed with Harding’s call for “normalcy” to elect him by a comfortable margin. In his inaugural address he returned to the theme, saying, “We must strive for normalcy to reach stability.” Harding’s scandal-prone administration perhaps never achieved that promised normalcy, but he at least managed to popularize a once-unusual word so that it achieved its own state of normalcy in our shared lexicon.
Writing in 1940, the political scientist Harold J. Laski observed that “‘normalcy’ is always certain to be popular after crises.” This is true of both the word and the idea that it labels. Two weeks after 9/11, The Guardian’s Washington correspondent Matthew Engel assessed the country’s mood: “You could hardly call it normality, especially in a country that prefers the inelegant word ‘normalcy.’ But it is at least a sense of equilibrium. And it might, perhaps, for a while, be ‘the new normalcy.’”
Now normalcy has come to the fore again, with Joe Biden hailed as the “normalcy” candidate, like Harding before him. Even before the pandemic began, a Harding-esque “return to normalcy” seemed to be “the main idea of Biden’s campaign,” as the Politico founding editor John Harris put it. With COVID-19 dominating the public imagination, that idea has only grown. “Especially now with the coronavirus, with everybody terrified that President Trump is lying every minute of the day and they just need some normalcy and safety in their life, Biden is that loyal, comfortable politician,” Nebraska Democratic Party Chair Jane Kleeb told The Hill.