Q&A: Normality vs normalcy

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're returning to normal…

Q: Hey AWC, I had coffee with a friend the other day – in an actual cafe.

A: Topical alert – can you explain why this is significant, for the person reading this in a few years.

Q: Ah, of course. Well, due to the pandemic, cafes were closed but now things are returning to normal.

A: Excellent, thanks.

Q: Actually, that’s what I want to ask you. My friend used the word “normalcy” when we were discussing things returning to normal. But I said that it should be “normality” – am I right?

A: First up, kudos for such enthralling cafe small talk. As for the words, well, they both mean exactly the same thing.

Q: What? Why?

A: Because English.

Q: No! That is NOT a reason! You need to stop using that as a reason.

A: Macquarie Dictionary defines “normality” as the character or state of being normal’. Meanwhile, they define “normalcy” as ‘the character or state of being normal; normality’.

Q: There’s nothing normal about two words meaning the same thing.

A: Have you MET English?

Q: Okay sure, maybe it happens a bit. But how did it come about? One must be the preferred, superior version, surely!

A: Yes. You’ll be pleased – and maybe a little smug – to learn that purists point to “normality” as being the older, more sensible choice. But both words are relatively recent.

Q: Explain.

A: Well, the adjective “normal” had been knocking about since the 1500s, but it wasn’t until 1833 that we saw the noun “normality” appear. The 1830s also gave us “normal schools” (places for training teachers), named from the French école normale – meaning “serving to set a standard.”

Q: And what about “normalcy”?

A: Well the word itself arrived in 1857 but was initially used solely in mathematics to denote a line at right angles.

Q: So when did it come to mean the same as “normality”?

A: Exactly 100 years ago during the 1920 US Presidential Election campaign. 

Q: Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.

A: Candidate (later President) William G. Harding famously campaigned in 1920 with the slogan “Return to Normalcy” – “normalcy” being a word he threw into a speech to help it flow with other alliteration. It was scoffed at by reporters at the time, who claimed it wasn’t a word – but Harding said he’d found it in the dictionary.

Q: I’m feeling rather freaked out that someone this year could campaign under pretty much the same slogan as back then!

A: Yeah it’s bizarre. In the case of 1920, it was referring to a return to pre-World War I life. Harding died in office in 1923, but the word “normalcy” stuck around longer – and many Americans prefer it today.

Q: Any other facts about “normalcy”?

A: Well, it’s unusual in that most other nouns that end in “-cy” have typically come from a corresponding adjective ending in “t”. Examples include pregnant/cy, vacant/cy, secret/cy, frequent/cy and dozens more. “Normalcy” breaks this pattern, while “normality” instead plays by the rules with others like formal/ity, neutral/ity, equal/ity etc.

Q: Yet another reason why “normality” is the best word to use!

A: Yes, we’d recommend going with it – but “normalcy” is not wrong, certainly popular in the US and simply another example of English being an ever evolving language.

Q: So in 2020, Australia is trying to “return to normality” after the pandemic while America is trying once more to “return to normalcy”?

A: That’s right. Perfectly normal. Nothing to see here.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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