The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s pointless to yearn for a post-pandemic return to normalcy. Or is it normality?


Benjamin Dreyer is Random House’s executive managing editor and copy chief and the author of “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.”

A bit over a century ago, in May 1920, Warren G. Harding — an Ohio newspaperman turned politician turned Republican presidential candidate — insisted in a Boston speech that “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy.”

Making it abundantly clear why H.L. Mencken characterized Harding’s oratorical style as reminding him of “a string of wet sponges,” and “dogs barking idiotically through endless nights,” to say nothing of “balder and dash,” the eventual 29th president of the United States could not leave well enough alone. Harding also noted that the country’s other present needs took in “not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity” — I’m not making this up, I promise — “not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise,” and, well, it goes on a bit more from there.

As it happened, the lightning rod of Harding’s verbiage was the one word — “normalcy” — on which he’d based his “Return to Normalcy” presidential campaign. So far as I understand the slogan, the nation would revert to a sort of bovine complacency that had been regrettably disrupted by what we now call World War I, with its 20-odd million military and civilian deaths.

The word-peevers of the era — the peeververein, to borrow a splendid coinage from John E. McIntyre, retired head of the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun — descended on Harding’s usage like that ton of bricks you’ve been warned about. “Normalcy,” they kvetched, was not a word at all, or it was an outmoded word. (Labor leader Samuel Gompers asserted that the word “normalcy” was “obsolete,” like “the condition to which” Harding “would return.”) Or it was simply, somehow, a bad word.

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The proper word, critics trumpeted, is “normality.” Well, Harding certainly hadn’t made up “normalcy” — the word had been knocking around the English language for a few decades by then, at least, and whether it was stuffily obsolete or not, Harding was happy to defend it to the New York Times as “a good word.”

As to “normality” and “normalcy,” the former is still the more popular word, according to the addictive (or do you say addicting? some people do) Google Books Ngram Viewer, which tallies word usage in more than 8 million books published between 1800 and 2019. But “normalcy” makes a decent show of it. (The Post’s stylebook is silent on the subject, and both words appear in its pages.)

The That’s Not a Word! brigade is still very much with us, I’m both amused and bemused to report; witness their perpetual dyspepsia over words such as “irregardless.” Another, “impactful,” appeared with weirdly near-simultaneous prominence last month in warnings about the then-looming nor’easter blizzard and in a statement by the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee. The board’s members, apparently in search of kinder, gentler Holocaust books, had axed Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” from the curriculum, and then responded to widespread criticism by paying lip service to the book as “an impactful and meaningful piece of literature.”

Advice to the TNaW! crowd: You don’t have to like particular words in common usage, and you don’t have to use them. You’re free to deplore the unnecessariness and intra-redundancy of “irregardless,” but there’s no point in pretending it isn’t a word.

It’s also pointless to bicker over “normalcy” vs. “normality” — especially when talking about life before the pandemic.

Where do you mark the changeover? I peg it to March 2, 2020. I was flying from my home in New York to Chicago, and it felt to me like that day, that very day, was the dividing line between “Ha, ha, ha, stop touching your face and be sure to sing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ while you’re washing your hands” and “Something bad, really bad, is about to happen.”

I stayed in Chicago for two weeks, and over that period, the coronavirus policy at the publishing company I work for shifted from “Out of an abundance of caution, feel free to work from home” to “Out of an abundance of caution, we suggest that you work from home” to “We’re locking the doors.” When I flew back, it was out of an eerily quiet O’Hare airport and in an eerily deserted plane.

From that point on, to borrow the phraseology of bad book descriptive copy, nothing would ever be the same.

Or, if you prefer: Everything had changed … forever.

Or, as I’ve always thought of it: the end of normalcy. Or the end of normality. Or the end of just plain normal. Whatever word you use, it seems unlikely that, any more than America and Americans did a century ago, we’re ever returning to it.