Normalcy and Squirmishes: Misunderestimating the Words of Politicians


Most of the time when we talk about someone creating a new word we speak of the inventor with admiration, or even awe. We think of the linguistic creations of long-dead writers, such as Shakespeare, as signs of their genius, or evidence that they singlehandedly chiseled a new life form out of granite and bequeathed it to the English-speaking people. We applaud these people who create language. That is, unless they happen to be politicians, in which case we laugh at them and say mean things. Warren Harding learned this the hard way.

In the presidential election of 1920 Harding made the ill-fated choice of using “A Return to Normalcy” as a campaign slogan. He was quickly and ruthlessly mocked, with mobs of ostensibly literate complainers howling that he had mistakenly used normalcy when he should have used normality. Many commenters assumed that this word did not exist, and a common misconception is that Harding invented normalcy. Warren Harding did not invent normalcy.

The word existed for over a half-century prior to his use of it (it dates to as early as 1857), although it was primarily used as a mathematical term. This has led some to critique that while Harding may not have invented it, but he was the first to use it improperly, and that’s just as bad. But Harding was also not the first person to use the word in a non-mathematical sense; it appears at least as far back as 1875, in the Chicago Sunday Times: “A little wine warms them into candor and normalcy.”

Harding won the election quite handily, notwithstanding the complaints about his word use. But his name has been forever associated with normalcy, and not in a good way.

In addition to Harding, many other political figures have been subjected to ridicule for exhibiting flexibility with their language, especially if their apparent invention seems to be the result, as Harding’s was, of simply making a mistake. Sarah Palin was not the first person to use refudiate; evidence of refudiation goes back to the late 19th century, and refudiate itself can be found in occasional use since 1925. Nor is Palin the first to use the term squirmishes. It appears several times in the 19th century, probably sometimes as misprintings. However once in a while it appears in quotation marks (as in this Atlantic Monthly article from 1889), which suggests that the writer assumed the audience would be unfamiliar with this term. A number of people used misunderestimate before George Bush famously said “They misunderestimated me,” but that hasn’t stopped us from mocking him for his slip of the tongue (or verbal inventiveness, depending on your political feelings).

Let’s call once again for a return to normalcy, but rather than normalcy standing for ill-conceived economic measures, it can perhaps be understood as the normal way that words are introduced to our language; sometimes through careful and thoughtful work, and sometimes just by someone making a mistake.


  1. these nuts -  July 19, 2016 - 12:01 pm

    Someone talk to me :D

  2. Joe -  February 8, 2016 - 12:30 am

    Nice one

    • GrammarGuru -  February 11, 2016 - 4:15 am

      What does the “Nice one” refer to @Joe?

  3. NEB -  February 4, 2016 - 10:30 am

    Just looking for something to do, how about you?

  4. GrammarGuru -  February 3, 2016 - 11:23 pm


  5. Anne Edwards -  February 2, 2016 - 1:39 am

    What irks me is when people say, “close proximity.” The word proximity encompasses close or near, so, it is like saying “close close” or “close near.” Tell me if I am wrong.

    • GrammarGuru -  February 3, 2016 - 11:24 pm


  6. ron naccarella -  February 1, 2016 - 7:16 pm

    It seems to me appropriate to politely suggest that there are perhaps more pressing concerns facing humanity at this moment in history than improper grammar and usage, although I’m certain that someone will put me in my place for saying so.

  7. David Tribble -  February 1, 2016 - 8:10 am

    So, no Democrats ever made any slips of the tongue?

    • Pepper -  February 1, 2016 - 7:17 pm

      That is correct. Democrats are the smartest people in any room. Just ask one.

      • yo momma -  February 2, 2016 - 9:33 am

        republicans are better than democrats any day of the week .if Clinton gets elected this country is going down the shitter.

        • Angelina -  February 13, 2016 - 7:59 am

          not really

        • billie jo blake -  March 7, 2016 - 7:27 pm

          I also agree with what Joe said last month.
          Why are all of these blogs more than a month old….. lol

    • Mia Arce -  February 1, 2016 - 7:32 pm

      I don’t believe that was the point of the article, but I am pretty sure some have. It’s just that the most prevalent examples are of Republicans.

  8. Bumba -  February 1, 2016 - 5:45 am

    Dis W3rd is dope yo.

  9. Russell Barley -  February 1, 2016 - 3:29 am

    I get so annoyed at people who misuse “take” and “bring”, Please explain the proper use of it. It seems that people from Minnesota are famous for ‘bringing their wife out to dinner’, instead of ‘taking her out to diner’. I think that to some degree it matters ‘where’ you are. If you are here, you ask someone there, to bring an item to you, NOT take it to you (here). What do you folks say about these two verbs?

    Also, while were are at it: Let us look at then & than! “Then” has to do with time, and “than” is used to compare.

    Help us out . . .

    Best Wishes, Rus Barley
    Sweet Home, Oregon (ore ree gun)

    • AJ -  February 1, 2016 - 4:35 pm

      But what about the Tennesseans who “carry Momma to the store”? ;^)

    • Sam -  February 1, 2016 - 6:02 pm

      I think you’re right with “take” and “bring” indicating the relative location. If the direct object is being moved toward, it is “brought;” if the direct object is being moved away, it is “taken.” So it becomes a question of which location is “here” and which location is “there,” and to whom they are relative, and why.

      In that regard, if you say “take your wife out to dinner,” you’re implying that the wife is being brought somewhere away from where she was, which is indicating that the distance she is being moved is relative to her own previous location, and we are speaking of her experience with this action. If you say “bring your wife out to dinner,” it sounds like the more important issue is the location of the people who will be seeing her when she is brought somewhere, and we are speaking of their experience with this action. In that sense, the difference between phrases sounds like it’s reducing the wife’s agency from a person who has experiences to a thing that is viewed by others.

      • these nuts -  July 19, 2016 - 11:57 am

        these nuts ha got em

        • these nuts -  July 19, 2016 - 11:58 am

          somebody save me from rehab D:

    • Pepper -  February 1, 2016 - 7:21 pm

      Here is an extremely disgusting example. Many people refer to their bowel movements as “taking a dump.” I mean, really? What exactly did you take out of there. More likely you left something instead.

      • Tristan -  February 2, 2016 - 8:36 am

        I completely and whole heartily agree with pepper.

      • NEB -  February 4, 2016 - 10:21 am

        “is it more than likely?

  10. xXGoDsWaGgErXx -  January 31, 2016 - 11:01 pm


  11. Jennifer Hoock -  January 30, 2016 - 2:54 pm

    I hope no one takes offense at the tone of my comment, it’s simply my dry sense of humor. I enjoyed this article and will be reading more by Mr. Shea in the very near future. As a person who feels strongly about the power of language and the importance of HOW its applied in communicating and connecting with each other, I hope and pray that we, as a society, stop condoning linguistic ignorance and laziness. Let us expect that our leaders, at the very least, understand their own words and possess the ability to express themselves accurately and effectively. On a lighter note, given the topic of this article, am I the only one to find irony in the author’s use of the words “while” and “but” together in the second sentence of the third paragraph?

    • Mia Arce -  February 1, 2016 - 7:34 pm

      I read over that the first time, thank you. I needed a little bit of grammar correction today. :)

    • Arjun Janah -  February 2, 2016 - 1:56 pm

      You did find an error, Jennifer Hoock, in the use of “but” with “while” in that second sentence of the third paragraph. From my own limited writing experience, I would guess that the author probably wrote it first with just a “but” or with just a “while”. He/she then, perhaps in the revising process, added the second word, but forgot to either notice or take out the first. As the two words are far apart, this seems plausible. The error should still have been caught and corrected before posting. Thanks for pointing it out.

  12. GrammarGuru -  January 29, 2016 - 9:53 pm

    BTW I used to be GrammerGuru now I’m GrammarGuru! :D

  13. GrammerGuru -  January 29, 2016 - 9:51 pm


  14. Michael -  January 29, 2016 - 12:52 am

    I maintain that to Peristeronize is to frame something in terms of pigeons. For example, at the London olympics, Svetlana Podobedova lifted a combined weight equivalent to 97 crowned pigeons.

  15. Nubel -  January 28, 2016 - 9:30 pm


  16. I HAT3 GRAMER NAZIs -  January 28, 2016 - 9:14 am

    This is like the grammer nazi HQ.

    • Jeff -  January 29, 2016 - 11:56 am

      ^ hahahahaha so true

    • Spud Koolzip -  January 29, 2016 - 7:55 pm

      First of all, the word is spelled ‘grammar.’ Secondly, ‘Nazi’ is a proper name, and therefore should be capitalized. Most of all, you should avail yourself of this website (among many others) to learn what the word ‘Nazi’ actually means.

      • Tristan -  February 2, 2016 - 8:39 am

        Spud, this is exactly his point, to anger others.

    • Esoteric Poet -  February 24, 2016 - 9:49 pm

      And I hate “jejemons”
      JEJEMONSTERS, a slang in my country for people who sends SMS using numbers for letters and say jejeje (read like in Spanish hehehe) instead of LOL.
      Someone like you, I HAT3 GRAMER NAZIs.

  17. aaron -  January 28, 2016 - 6:59 am


  18. Maya Carlson -  January 28, 2016 - 5:43 am

    So Dictionary.com and numerous other sites seem to indicate that the word “normalcy” is the new norm now. “Normality” does not even appear except as a noun form of “normal,” with its several meanings. Is this correct? In other words, is “normalcy” just what one should say these days if one means a state of general, normal behavior?

    • GrammerGuru -  January 29, 2016 - 9:51 pm


  19. Susan -  January 27, 2016 - 3:18 pm

    I love language as much as the next person, but these words are hardly a tragedy in comparison to “ginormous” and the newly accepted “irregardless.” Heck, I lose my mind when people can’t use the very basic and simple forms of their, they’re, and there, or its and it’s. Grrrr. The words mentioned in this article may make the speakers look foolish, but the daily nuclear bombs of words dropped daily in my social media feeds raise my ire a tad more than using “squirmishes.”

    • karen -  January 28, 2016 - 8:50 am

      “Very unique” will always irritate me.

      • steve -  January 29, 2016 - 8:30 pm

        Hah! I remember my dad becoming quite animated over this very issue. He would say, “There are no degrees of uniqueness! Either something is unique, or it is not!” ;)

      • Buster -  February 1, 2016 - 12:02 am

        Another one that drives me crazy is ‘preventative’. Why do people want so badly to add the extra syllable?

        • Gene -  March 13, 2016 - 12:30 pm

          Preventative and preventive are both words. Both forms are used in writing about medicine and health, as well as in other instances.

  20. Jonathan -  January 27, 2016 - 11:48 am

    kind of interesting that there is no definitions for some of these words if you copy and paste them into the search bar

  21. Mel -  January 26, 2016 - 1:50 pm

    Too bad he didn’t have dictionary.com to set him straight.

  22. Fred -  January 26, 2016 - 10:14 am

    “W” should have his own dictionary; how about Nuc’ler?

  23. bob -  January 25, 2016 - 10:13 am


    • Gene -  March 13, 2016 - 12:36 pm

      My children were very squirmish when they were small, and often conducted squirmishes with each other. If we all use that sense of the word, then a new word has been added to the English language and Palin has won. LOL

  24. Terry jo white -  January 23, 2016 - 11:22 am

    I am a sociopath magnet and today is their day to feel the hurt and pain they have inflicted upon me on a daily basis for far to long period.

    • lol -  January 27, 2016 - 1:58 am


  25. John -  January 23, 2016 - 9:49 am

    People invent words all the time – some are clever some are not. Some stay with us some do not. A “Squirmish” seemed like fun to me – a skirmish you can’t squirm out of, Dead on.

  26. Harvey Wachtel -  January 22, 2016 - 9:05 am

    The problem with “normalcy” is that it’s inconsistent with the usual rules of word formation, which call for “-cy” after some adjective endings but “-ity” after an “-al” ending. Just what English needs! Another exception.

    Given that there’s no important difference of meaning between “normalcy” and “normality”, there’s no excuse, IMHO, for the continued existence of the aberrant form.

    • David Reskof, MD -  January 23, 2016 - 8:56 pm

      In the field of Psychiatry we have several terms that describe several features of Ms Palin’s words and thoughts.To wit: 1). “Loosening of Association “( as when phrases within a sentence don’t quite fit together 2) Neologisms; newly “invented” words or compound words ( such as squirmishes) 3) Concrete thinking – shown by an inability to abstract concepts – most easily elicited by asking a person to explain a proverb which is a metaphorical description -often of a state of mind.) 4) prevalence of an affective state over a persons’ ability to logically organize their speech. Such usages are often seen in Schizophrenics and in certain states of Mania.

      • Another therapist -  January 31, 2016 - 9:55 am

        Yes and her recent endorsement speech lends credence to the possibility of such conditions

      • Michael Hennessey -  February 1, 2016 - 6:06 pm

        Ha ha, The devil in me. In this case according to your definition Palin did not commit a Neologism as she did not invent the word.

    • Sean Smith -  January 24, 2016 - 2:32 am

      I learned “normalcy” as a word in social studies class: American History. Normalcy and Normality differ in their definitions in that “Normalcy” is a return to the regular state of mind regarding warfare, particularly after mobilization. Where normality is the normal way of doing things.
      Specifically, normalcy refers to government decisions regarding the military and production. “Normalcy” and “Mobilized” are two mutually exclusive government operating standards.

    • Luis Chamorro -  January 26, 2016 - 8:29 am

      I agree Although I think if it were to stick it should be changed to something a bit more elegant dodging the exception such as Normalicy or Normaliticy the latter one may be a bit weird but at least it sounds better the normacly.


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