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‘Normalcy’ or ‘Normality’?

One of these words came from a misspeak (followed by a doubling-down) by Warren Harding.

By
Mignon Fogarty
3-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

"Normality" was the original word and is still the most common word today. "Normalcy" resulted from an error, but is considered fine today, especially in the United States.

I’m still waiting to get my first COVID vaccination, but man, I am starting to feel hope on the horizon, and it seems I’m not the only one because I’ve been getting questions like this one from Steve in Pataskala, Ohio:

“In reference to ‘returning to [life] after the pandemic’ I have wondered what is correct — ‘normalcy’ or ‘normality’?”

'Normality'

“Normality” is the slightly older word, and the short answer is that it’s also a little more respectable than “normalcy,” but “normalcy” has the more interesting history.

'Normalcy' and Warren Harding

“Normalcy” first showed up in some obscure references to mathematics, but it seems to have been popularized in the United States by president Warren Harding in the 1920s.

The Oxford English Dictionary labels it as “chiefly U.S.” and has these two citations, which I find funny back-to-back.

First, in 1920, Harding said, “America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration.”

He went on to make his campaign slogan, “Return to normalcy.”

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The next citation in the OED is from a 1929 tract from the Society for Pure English, that says, “If...‘normalcy’ is ever to become an accepted word it will presumably be because the late President Harding did not know any better,” because, as it turns out, “normalcy” is the result of an error by a U.S. president. 

In fact, Harding was apparently mocked at the time for using “normalcy,” but then his supporters came to his defense citing the earlier math references. But that wasn’t really the point. It did exist before he used it, but nobody imagined he was reading old math dictionaries and decided to use the word he found there. He wasn’t using it deliberately that way. He just got the usual word, “normality,” wrong.

I recommend saying we’re “getting back to normality.”

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage, people continued to use “normalcy,” often in criticisms of Harding and often in quotation marks to highlight their sarcasm. 

The closest  modern parallel I can think of is when people mocked George W. Bush for saying “nucular” instead of “nuclear.” But unlike “nucular,” “normalcy” seemed to catch on, and eventually, people moved from using it mockingly to using it as just another word that had the same meaning as “normality.”

The other thing it makes me think of is when people jokingly mispronounce a word, like “occifer” for “officer” or “flutterby” for “butterfly,” but then they end up accidentally saying the “funny” pronunciation when they’re actually serious because they’ve used it so much. 

Early style guides recommended against “normalcy,” but it’s not considered an error today. All the dictionaries include it (perhaps labeled as “chiefly American” if you’re looking at a British dictionary). Bryan Garner says “normalcy” is “virtually universal” though still objected to by a few stalwarts, and the Associated Press says either word is fine.

US versus British Usage

Having arisen in the United States, “normalcy” tends to be a little more popular here than in Britain, but even in the United States it is still less common in published books than “normality.”

Based on all this, I recommend saying we’re “getting back to normality,” but I don’t have a problem with “normalcy” either. I welcome it no matter what we call it.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.