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June 25, 1999


Marilyn Bosckis wrote:
Did Woodrow Wilson really coin the word "normalcy," as I have read, or did he just give it legitimacy? I know it's in current usage, but is it considered correct by Those Who Decide? I have recently read two pop-psych books, one of which used "normalcy" throughout, while the other used "normality."

It certainly wasn't Wilson, the former president of Princeton, who was condemned for the supposed abomination normalcy. Rather it was his successor, the notoriously ill-spoken Warren G. Harding, who famously called for a "return to normalcy" after World War I.

Harding, we recall, was also blamed for the word bloviate, and just like that word, normalcy was coined in the mid-nineteenth century and Harding merely made it more popular.

The words normality and normalcy both mean 'the quality or state of being normal'. Both are perfectly regular formations. But only normalcy has been fiercely condemned, especially after Harding's famous use of it.

A fact brought up at that time was that not only was normalcy around since 1857, or before Harding was even born, but the supposedly proper normality was only a few years older, first recorded in 1849. (Normalness was also a word of that era, but it never got very far.) Another relevant fact is that normal itself, in the familiar sense 'standard' (another sense, in geometry, goes back to the seventeenth century), only dates from the 1820s and was rare until the 1840s. Thus when discussing any form of normal we must remember that it is a rather recent word all of whose relevant forms appeared at about the same time.

For most of its history normalcy has been less common than normality. It was rare throughout the nineteenth century and, despite a Harding-induced flurry of usage in the '20s, was rare during the '30s, but appears to have become common after World War II.

I'm not sure who Those Who Decide are, so it's hard to evaluate Their beliefs. All four major American college dictionaries include normalcy without any kind of usage note. A number of prominent recent usage books accept it as standard, including Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, and The Columbia Guide to Standard American English; others, such as The American Heritage Book of English Usage, do not even bother to include it. Bryan Garner, who is generally conservative, still rails against it in his recent Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but he appears to be in a minority. Both words are fully standard in American English. (In British English normalcy remains a disfavored word.)

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