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‘Normalcy’ returns as a real word after a century of use

If You Ask Me

For the second time in exactly a century, an elected president is promising a “return to normalcy” for his beleaguered people.  But there’s a difference.  Nobody’s poking fun about using the malapropism “normalcy” this time, as they did to Warren G. Harding a hundred years ago.  In fact, most of the leading newspapers have been reporting on Biden’s “return to normalcy,” with nary a reference to the once preferred word, “normality,” or the simpler word, normal.  It seems “normalcy” has made it after all these years.  Just check your dictionary.

I first encountered the return to normalcy as a senior in college, when I was allowed to take two independent study courses of my own design — one on American presidents in the 1920s and the other on American writers in the same decade.

In the history course, I studied the decade’s four presidencies: the seriously ill Woodrow Wilson’s final year; Warren G. Harding to his  death in office and its scandalous aftermath; Calvin Coolidge’s elevation from Harding’s vice president and the single term he served on his own and Herbert Hoover’s four years of prosperity and depression.

The course on writers included the usual suspects — novelists Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser and others.  I liked them all but my favorite writer of the decade and the decades to follow wasn’t a novelist.  He was the journalist, essayist and critic H.L. Mencken, who proved to be a main character in both the history and literature courses.

Mencken’s remembered today — if at all — for  “The American Language,” his brilliant study of English as it was written and spoken by Americans up to his time.  And as both a linguist and an editor, Mencken reveled in criticizing return to normalcy’s Warren Gamaliel Harding.

As editor of the two leading literary magazines of the decade, The Smart Set and The American Mercury, Mencken introduced, encouraged and published Fitzgerald, Lewis, Dreiser and James Joyce but also lesser literary lights, who often gave him the opportunity to “translate the bad English of a multitude of authors into measurably better English.”

And so, except for an occasional college professor and “half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters,” Mencken singled out Harding’s near-unique talent:  “He writes the worst English I have ever encountered.”

And this brings us back to “normalcy,” a word that did appear in a 19th mathematical dictionary before it was revived, if not coined, in a campaign promise by candidate Harding. 

After the World War and a flu pandemic that took 675,000 American lives, Harding, in an alliterative flourish, campaigned for “not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution but restoration,” and on and on to “not experiment, but equipoise” and in a final rhetorical outburst, “not submergence in internationality but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” 

Mencken noticed and after Harding was elected by a landslide, wrote that Harding’s writing reminded him of “a string of wet sponges, of tattered washing on the line, of stale bean soup”….“so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps in.

“It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

The Sage of Baltimore, as some admirers called him, had his own way with words.

And now, exactly a century later, we have a new president promising a “return to normalcy,” although Joe Biden, to the best of my research, has never uttered those words, even as he has made the promise of better days ahead and life as it was following  the fearsome COVID-19 pandemic and the divisions of Trumpism.

Those three little words, “return to normalcy,” appear to have been given to him by the media. Headline after headline, from The New York Times to The Washington Post, from Mother Jones to US News, tell us “Biden Promises a Return to Normalcy” or “Biden to Offer Help for a Return to Normalcy,” as the Post predicted in a preview of the president’s first prime-time speech March 11.  I carefully went over the transcript of that speech and couldn’t find a reference to normalcy, normality or normal even though the return was broadly envisioned by Biden.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the timing of two returns to normalcy a century apart and note the coincidence of having had one of our two worst presidencies begin in March of 1921 and the other end in January of 2021.


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

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