Merriam-Webster decided last month that its 2020 Word of the Year is “pandemic,” and it’s tough to quarrel with that choice. Daily dictionary look-ups of “pandemic,” from early March on, increased an average of 4,000 percent over 2019 levels — including more than 115,000 percent on March 11, the day the World Health Organization announced we were in the midst of one.
But 2020 has been a year rich with newly popularized old words, from “asymptomatic” to “schadenfreude” — so rich, in fact, that the competition over at the Oxford Dictionaries couldn’t settle on just one and instead offered up several "Words of an Unprecedented Year."
That acknowledgement of chaos’ penchant for enriching the vernacular underscores the usefulness of yet another word: the aforementioned “unprecedented.”
In May, humorist Jim Gaffigan affirmed what many had already concluded: We’re sick of “unprecedenteds”: “I want to go back to a time when I had no idea what an epidemiologist was.” Which, naturally, led a Georgia marketing firm to declare, a month later, “the unprecedented is now precedented, so stop using the word.” And we did, mostly.
But the extraordinary events of 2020 have come so relentlessly rapid fire that it’s now clear Oxford’s list, announced Nov. 23, came out too soon. The list excluded a worthy new/old candidate we’ve been hearing a lot lately: “normalcy.”
After a year of soul-battering, patience-trying, sanity-testing upheaval roiled by extraordinary, nonstop events in politics, public health, science, and civil rights reckoning, we yearn for normalcy — for the mundane comfort of routine, for the way things were. We want to Make America Monotonous Again.
But the history of the word “normalcy” offers this stark lesson: There’s no such thing. Social and cultural change, broadly defined, is normal; stasis is not.
“Normalcy” is almost exactly 100 years old, at least in the sense we use it today. The term turns up in mathematical contexts as early as 1857, but it wasn’t widely used until Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding, in the election of 1920, coined the phrase “return to normalcy.” The U.S. had just emerged from the dual traumas of World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic, and Harding seized upon public craving for peace, health and lack of drama.
Critics accused Harding of inventing the high-sounding word “normalcy” when the standard “normality” should have sufficed. But “normalcy” survived; Harding didn’t. He died in office just 2½ years after taking the oath — and two months before the first hearings into that great posthumous stain on his administration: the Teapot Dome scandal, of which Kern County’s Elk Hills and Buena Vista oil fields were central pawns. Harding’s promise of “normalcy” begat what historians have regarded as the most corrupt presidential cabinet in U.S. history, pending history’s judgment upon more recent administrations.
Very little, it turns out, was “normal” about those ’20s. The exuberance of the age, of perceived freedom from the oppression of war and disease, made them the “Roaring ’20s.” By the end of the decade, the nation was plunged into a Depression that would define the next decade-plus.
Now we have a president-elect who is celebrating the centennial of the slogan “Return to Normalcy.” What Joe Biden means when he uses the borrowed line is, of course, a presidential term free of the erratic autocracy of Donald Trump and the fear and uncertainty of COVID-19. But Biden will be hard-pressed to deliver on either. All indications point to a Trump shadow government and a pandemic that will likely get worse before it gets better, vaccine or not.
Even without those leg irons, however, normalcy is an illusion. The world was changing in so many ways, rapidly and irreversibly, before 2020 came along.
That was evident right here in our own community. The oil and gas industry, so central to the economy of California’s southern San Joaquin Valley, was already under siege like at no time in its history. Gov. Gavin Newsom is committed to its dismantling, and no matter what his personal political fortunes may be, his priorities express the broader mood of this progressive state.
Kern County already has some of the deepest poverty in America; the oil industry has been a savior, delivering a reliable flow of prosperity to enough residents to prop up the whole local economy. Without it — or a suitable replacement — the entire region suffers, and Kern County, already one of the biggest net recipients of state services, only becomes more needy.
Migration within the state has been growing, with priced-out Bay Area workers moving to Stockton and Modesto and residents of Los Angeles and Ventura counties moving to Bakersfield. That will change those areas’ cultural and political identities. And the normalization of work-from-home options only accelerates the trend.
What all of this means for Kern County is this: In 2021 and the years immediately ahead, we’ll have nothing remotely resembling normalcy.
Maybe the term of the year should be “accelerated change.” The backward-looking hope embodied in “Make American Great Again” never really had a chance, and neither does Joe Biden’s old/new “Return to Normalcy.”
Change is the constant. Managing it is the key.