How Normalcy Went From Misnomer to Safe Word

A recent uptick in Google searches for the term signals a longing for the usual state of affairs.

Among the related questions displayed on Google’s search-results page for the word are “Is ‘normalcy’ a real word?” (Hossein Fatemi / Panos Pictures / ​Redux)

We’re all waiting, with varying degrees of patience, for things to get back to normal—even if everyday life will never be quite the same as it was before the coronavirus pandemic. Looking ahead to that future time, many have grasped for an uneasy word from the past: normalcy.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sunday said he saw “normalcy” on the horizon for his state, assuming that widespread testing can be put in place: “I think you see the return to normalcy when we have an approved rapid testing program that can be brought to scale.” At the White House press briefing the next day, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was asked about “gradual steps towards restoring normalcy.” “Remember, when you say ‘normalcy’—I mean, we could get back normally, economically and otherwise, without necessarily saying we’re going to forget about the virus,” he said.

It’s ironic that this word gesturing toward a hoped-for restoration of the normal state of affairs feels somehow not quite … normal. Since the beginning of March, Google Trends, which measures the popularity of search terms, has shown a big spike of attention for normalcy. But many of those searching for the word online may be seeking guidance for proper usage. Among the related questions displayed on Google’s search-results page for the word are “Is ‘normalcy’ a real word?” and “Which is correct, ‘normalcy’ or ‘normality’?”

The question of whether normalcy is a real word that is an acceptable alternative to normality goes back a century, to the 1920 presidential campaign of Warren G. Harding, who made “The return to normalcy” his central slogan. As a Republican senator from Ohio not known for his eloquence, Harding found himself roundly criticized for using the word, even as the sentiment it encapsulated swept him into the White House.

Early on in his campaign, Harding seemed to be testing out the word as he created a message that would appeal to those weary from the upheavals of World War I and—mirroring our own time—a deadly influenza pandemic. Speaking in Brooklyn in February 1920, Harding said, “It is time to hark back to sanity and normality.” But a few sentences later, he spoke of the nation finding its way back to “the new normalcy.”

While “sanity and normality” has a nice ring to it, Harding ended up favoring “normalcy,” despite the fact that it was far less common than normality at the time. His most famous use of the word came on May 14 of that year, when he delivered an address to the Home Market Club of Boston, stating alliteratively, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration.”

Audio from Harding re-creating that speech survives, and it allows us to hear him incorporate the word into his less-than-thrilling rhetoric. (H. L. Mencken once said that Harding’s attempts at oratory reminded him of “a string of wet sponges”and “tattered washing on the line.”) Yet not all newspapers reproduced his turn of phrase faithfully. The Boston Globe transcribed the line as “not nostrums but normality”—correcting the candidate’s speech for him.

Normalcy was unusual enough that many commentators assumed that Harding had simply made it up—a misconception that gets repeated to this day. In fact, the word had been in use since at least 1855, albeit in a technical way, when it appeared in a mathematical dictionary. Five years later, a reviewer in the magazine The New Englander, surveying the latest dictionaries from Webster and Worcester, included normalcy among the newish words that neither dictionary had yet captured (along with other items like bisexuality, orgiastic, and slackjaw). G. & C. Merriam, the publisher of Webster’s dictionaries, found room for normalcy in its American Dictionary of the English Language of 1864, though marking it “rare.” That “rare” label would stick around in subsequent editions of Webster’s dictionaries, as well as in the Century Dictionary, published in 1889–91. By that point, normalcy had at least moved past its mathematical origins and could be found in theological discussions, ones that Harding, a devout Baptist, may have absorbed.

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.

So there is something comforting about the word normalcy, even as it chafes a bit, seeming slightly off-kilter. In common American parlance, it has found a place that the more sterile-sounding normality (a companion of abnormality) never could. And the fact that it is linked to a bygone political moment may in fact work in the word’s favor, providing a patina of nostalgia. By recalling an imagined past that was simpler and less chaotic, normalcy may be as much of an artifice as it was a century ago in Harding’s day. But when everyone’s life has been so severely disrupted, the old-fashioned awkwardness of normalcy carries with it a retro appeal that is downright soothing.