It’s happening again, and we need to put the matter to rest. Or, at least, try.
Recent news articles and columns have drawn parallels between Democrat Joe Biden’s current presidential campaign and the campaign of Republican Warren G. Harding in 1920. And, there are parallels. Both 2020 and 1920 have pandemics (covid-19 vs. the flu — Spain didn’t have anything to do with it), economic downturns (covid-19 vs. transition from World War I), and a desire to embrace “normalcy.” (Or, is it “normality?”)
Reaching back to the Harding era, the old myth that Harding coined the word “normalcy” is back in the news. We owe it to editor Harding to address his word choice and bring out the facts.
When Harding uttered the word “normalcy” in the context of explaining that the nation needed to “return to normalcy” in 1920, some newspaper editors and linguists whipped out their grease pencils and admonished him for making a huge grammatical error. They assumed he had misspoken and really meant to say, “normality.” Some editors, thinking they were helping, “corrected” the alleged error.
Harding, the longtime newspaper editor, was somewhat amused with the fuss and maintained his intentional choice of words. “I have noticed that word caused considerable newspaper editors to change it to ‘normality,’” he said, according to a New York Times story from July 20, 1920. “I have looked for ‘normality’ in my dictionary, and I do not find it there. ‘Normalcy,’ however, I did find, and it is a good word.”
Indeed, he was right. “Normalcy” was listed in dictionaries since well before Harding’s 1865 birth, even in one from the 1800s that is part of the Harding Collections at the Warren G. Harding Presidential Site. So, maybe instead of “coining” the word, the more accurate explanation is that Harding may have popularized the word. The “Return to Normalcy” phrase, which became one of his popular campaign slogans, also was picked up by retailers across the nation. Many clothing, shoe, and hardware stores had “Return to Normalcy” sales and prices. The Century Dictionary company cleverly touted the fact that its dictionary included the word “normalcy” on page 4017 after the New York Sun and the New York Herald both said there was no such word. “Why don’t the editors get a regular dictionary?” the ad queried.
After a clumsy transition from wartime to peacetime under President Woodrow Wilson’s leadership, a flu pandemic killing 500,000 Americans (millions more worldwide), a post-war global recession and a general lack of confidence in the nation’s future, Americans indeed wanted “normalcy.” Historians and authors, over the past 100 years, have taken liberties in trying to explain what Harding meant by returning the country to normalcy. Generally, they have said that Harding looked backward and wanted the nation to return to 1914 or earlier. Harding, though, was not naïve and knew the nation could not be rewound. Look closely at what he said:
“By ‘normalcy,’ I do not mean the old order, but a regular, steady order of things. I mean normal procedure, the natural way, without excess. I don’t believe the old order can or should come back, but we must have normal order, or, as I have said, normalcy.”
OK, his explanation is wordy. People spoke more formally in speeches or official statements 100 years ago (and used way too many words). Re-interpreted in 2020, Harding may have said, “By ‘normalcy,’ I don’t mean that we go back to the way things were. I mean we get the many layers of society – government, industry, innovation – engaged again.” In other words, crank up the literal and figurative machinery of American society.
We are starting to realize that the world will have a new definition of “normalcy” once the current pandemic is contained, and then hopefully, defeated. Our lives will not mirror the 2019 of just a few months ago, just like Harding’s world of 1919 was gone forever. But, just as Harding desired in 1920, the “machinery” of American society will reshape itself and go forward.