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I’ve got a bone to pick with Warren G. Harding.
But first, a little background:
The English language, as we all know, is “a West Germanic language of the Indo-European language family that is closely related to the Frisian, German, and Dutch (in Belgium called Flemish) languages. … English is the first choice of foreign language in most other countries of the world, and it is that status that has given it the position of a global lingua franca.” That’s what the Encyclopedia Britannica says.
What I say is that English is clearly the global lingua aeronautica, in that you can’t land a plane anywhere in the world without talking to the tower in English. And that makes it easier for the English-speaking passengers inside that plane because they, more than most people in the world, can largely ignore the need to communicate in anything other than hand gestures and English, spoken as loudly as the situation seems to require. Much of this can be attributed to the duration and vast scope of the former British Empire, on which it once was accurately claimed that the sun never set.
English vocabulary goes back to ancient Greek, Latin and French, but also includes words picked up over the centuries from other languages: Japanese (karaoke, tsunami), modern German (kindergarten), modern French (rendezvous), Spanish (guerrilla), Yiddish (klutz, schmooze, glitch), Russian (babushka), Italian (paparazzi), Swedish (moped), Hindi (bungalow, khaki), Irish (galore, kibosh), and more. The list is just about endless.
Then there are some words coming out of our national political culture that probably mean nothing at all to the rest of the world that speaks some form or other of this remarkably flexible lingo: filibuster for one, gerrymander for another. Both have been in the news of late and will no doubt continue to be.
Anyway, English also includes a bunch of words or phrases that, if not actually coined by U.S. presidents, were at least popularized by them and might well have dropped out of usage long ago without that presidential boost.
Franklin Roosevelt, it is said, gave us “iffy.” His fifth cousin, Theodore, contributed “the lunatic fringe” (he was talking about modern art, but it’s a usage we would otherwise have had to come up with to characterize a great deal of what’s been going on in our politics lately). And Dwight Eisenhower probably ensured the survival of the golfing term “mulligan,” simply by taking so many of them himself.
But my beef is with our 29th president, Warren Gamaliel Harding — and not because he had such an exotic middle name, especially compared to Harry Truman, who had no middle name at all, just that S. (Gamaliel, it turns out, was an ancient Jewish scholar and teacher who is mentioned in the Bible. That’s all I know.)
My problem is that for more than a year now I’ve had to hear, just about daily, about how everybody wants to get over the pandemic and back to “normalcy” — when we already had a perfectly serviceable word, “normality,” to use. But it has just about disappeared because Mr. Harding popped up with “normalcy” in a big campaign speech in 1920, and that put the kibosh on “normality.”
So, until all pandemic restrictions are finally lifted, I’m afraid we’re stuck with living in the present abnormalcy.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.