Etymology Usage

What’s normal now?

Q: “Normalcy” or “normality”? What are your thoughts?

A: Both “normalcy” and “normality” are legitimate nouns in American English, though only “normality” is used in British English.

Anyone who quibbles about “normalcy” should keep in mind that both words came into use only in the 19th century, so they’re relatively new.

So, for that matter, is the adjective “normal” in its usual sense. It’s derived from the Latin norma, a carpenter’s rule, and until the 1840s it meant perpendicular.

So these words are still sorting themselves out.

As Robert W. Burchfield writes in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “What we are dealing with here is a group of modern words that has hardly had time for the customary processes of assimilation or rejection to have taken their course.”

He continues: “Normalcy and normality stand side by side in AmE as legitimate alternatives. In BrE normality is the customary term, and normalcy is widely scorned. The distribution of these two abstract nouns in the rest of the English-speaking world needs to be investigated further before any claims are made about their currency.”

Since this is an election year, here’s a political aside. While “normalcy” existed in American English in the 19th century, it was uncommon until Warren G. Harding popularized it in his 1920 presidential campaign.

Harding ran on a platform promising a “return to normalcy” in the wake of World War I. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave in Boston in 1920:

“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

We quote the whole sentence only to demonstrate what a windbag and a clumsy writer Harding was. But when his critics tore the speech to shreds, they were rather clumsy themselves. They accused him of using “normalcy” in error and assumed he meant “normality.”

In fact, Harding was using an established word (he was fond of 19th-century expressions, and is also credited with reviving “bloviate”).

Despite his tin ear (“nostrums”? “equipoise”?), Harding won the election. And “normalcy” survived the criticism, too.

Check out our books about the English language