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Let normality prevail

The word leapt from a headline as I turned the page. I was aghast, and had no doubt most of my colleagues would share my dismay.

The word leapt from a headline as I turned the page. I was aghast, and had no doubt most of my colleagues would share my dismay. It was not, however, a misprint. Someone paid to work in the English language had actually typed out "normalcy", not as a crude invention to replace "normality" and make the heading one character shorter to fit the line, but because he saw it as a perfectly proper word.

In fact, the offending page editor was probably as taken aback by my challenge as I had been by the word's appearance. As someone who had grown up in the US, he would have used it without a moment's thought. Indeed, even as I prepared a message to all staff asking that the word should be avoided at all costs, another colleague, also American, pointed me in the direction of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. There it was, midway between "nork" and "Norman", offered as a variant, albeit North American, of normality. To my intense disappointment, there was no hint of disapproval.

I had to turn to Fowler's Modern English Usage for the reassuringly stern note that this was "a word of the 'spurious hybrid' class (see Hybrids and Malformations), and seems to have nothing to recommend it". This was exactly what I wanted to read. So strongly did Fowler's feel on the matter that it saw a need to acquit a past American president, Warren G Harding, of "the charge of having coined it; others had used it long before he did".

All this bluster serves to illustrate the substantial extent to which language stylists base their judgements on personal preferences. In my capacity as author and custodian of The National's style guide, I must plead guilty. Let us consider the etymology of normalcy. Some scholars question its validity on the grounds that "-cy" is a suffix reserved for words such as democrat that end in "t". But normalcy appears to have been with us, or at least some of us, for almost as long as normality.

President Harding was not even born when, in 1857, its use was first noted. Normality dates from only eight years earlier. As far as Marilyn Bosckis, one defender of normalcy writing a few years ago on an American publishing house's website, was concerned, both versions were "perfectly regular formations" accepted by respectable reference books. Ms Bosckis could not even be accused of pro-Harding bias since she describes him as "notoriously ill-spoken". But she clearly has a keen sense of natural justice, exonerating him of all blame for a further Americanism that would appal some of us: "to bloviate", meaning to talk vacuously at length.

Another source on English usage, the website, cites a pragmatic vindication of Warren Harding's way with English. It goes so far as to claim that it won him the US presidential election in 1920 after a campaign remembered for his use of normalcy to identify precisely the quality needed in post-war America. The anonymous writer adds that the politician had merely rescued the word from obscurity. Despite the sneers of purists, it had subsequently "become more normal than 'normality' to describe the way things usually are or the way we think they ought to be".

That, of course, is where personal preference takes over; Fowler's law, on this occasion, prevails. No amount of American lobbying can persuade me of normalcy's merit or acceptability. It is inelegant when written and ugly when spoken; it remains, except in direct speech, officially banned from the pages of this newspaper. Colin Randall is the executive editor of The National.

Published: December 6, 2008 04:00 AM

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