During my appearance on WNYC's "The Leonard Lopate Show" yesterday to talk about Sarah Palin's much-ridiculed use of the word refudiate, I found myself in the odd position of defending Warren Gamaliel Harding, one of the least admired presidents in American history. In the commentary on Palin, Harding was revived as a point of comparison, particularly for his use of two memorable words: normalcy and bloviate. As I said on the show, I'd argue that Harding has gotten a bad rap on both counts.
Time columnist Joe Klein invoked the ghost of Harding in his piece on Palin last week on the Swampland blog:
Those politicians who have only a passing familiarity with proper English tend to be the most creative when it comes to wordiating. Warren G. Harding was responsible for two classics: "normalcy" (as opposed to "normality") and my all-time favorite "bloviating."
Now, nobody ever accused Harding of being a fine orator. In fact, his woeful use of language elicited many vicious takedowns, most hilariously in "Gamalielese," a 1921 column in the Baltimore Sun by H.L. Mencken (an inveterate Harding-hater):
I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and a half dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
Despite all that, I don't think either normalcy or bloviate illustrates Harding's "passing familiarity with proper English," as Klein puts it. Harding first used normalcy in a 1920 campaign speech: "America's present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy." The oft-repeated story is that Harding's prepared speech actually had normality but the candidate misread it. Then his handlers, it is said, decided to make the best of the situation by using the misbegotten word in the campaign slogan, "Return to Normalcy."
But was normalcy really a gaffe? Normality and normalcy are regularly formed nouns from the adjective normal, both dating to the mid-nineteenth century. (According to the Oxford English Dictionary, normality is recorded from 1848 and normalcy from 1857.) True, normality was by far the more common of the two before 1920, and when normalcy did appear it was often related to the geometric meaning of normal ("perpendicular"). But a stroll through Google Books finds that normalcy was also being used in theological circles from the late nineteenth century on. (See these examples from 1892, 1893, 1898, and 1902.) It's possible that Harding, a devout Baptist, had been exposed to the word through this literature.
Bloviate is a word that Harding used self-effacingly to describe his long-winded speaking style. It's a facetious Americanism formed from blow meaning "boast" (as in blowhard), and like normalcy it dates to the mid-nineteenth century. The latest draft additions to the OED show that several forms of the word came into use circa 1850:
bloviate, v. To talk at length, esp. using inflated or empty rhetoric.
1845 Huron Reflector (Norwalk, Ohio) 14 Oct. 3/1 Peter P. Low, Esq., will with open throat..bloviate about the farmers being taxed upon the full value of their farms, while bankers are released from taxation.
1857 Chicago Mag. 15 June 364/2 Such a policy may be termed bloviating, or puffing, or some other like appellation.
1857 Coshocton (Ohio) Democrat 17 June 2/1 The Age makes the following bloviating announcement.
1850 in Rep. Deb. & Proc. Convent. for Revision Constit. State of Ohio (1851) 640/1 For doing my duty, I claim no credit—I seek no 'bloviations'—I ask for no sacrifices—I desire no ovations.
1850 in Rep. Deb. & Proc. Convent. for Revision Constit. State of Ohio (1851) 642/1 When the bloviators attempt to disturb the proceedings of this Convention, they will be allowed to proceed without any further or more particular notice.
Note the preponderance of examples from Ohio, Harding's home state. Should we be surprised that Harding used a playful term from his own local variety of English to make light of his inadequacies as a speaker? If it were a different public figure, the use of such a regionalism could be seen as charming and folksy. But because it was Harding, it gets treated as inelegant "wordiating," to quote Klein. So I say let's cut the man from Blooming Grove a little slack, at least when it comes to the two words most identified with him.
(You can catch my bloviation on "The Leonard Lopate Show" here.)
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer