Book Review: Geoffrey Nunberg’s Going Nucular

This month we review a book that could have been included in last month’s “Summer Reading” review list (except I hadn’t finished reading it at that time).

It is Geoffrey Nunberg’s Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times. Nunberg is a professor of linguistics at Stanford and the book is a collection of his radio commentaries on language that he gives regularly on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.

Going Nucular comprises some sixty-five short essays on language and usage. The essays were all delivered on the radio during the period from 2001 through 2003 and many deal with the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 and how we altered our use of language to describe the attacks and their effects. (Nunberg includes the date the essay was delivered on the radio. This allows the reader to associate the topical subject with the appropriate period. One only wishes that other authors of compilations, like William Safire, would do the same.) Individual essay topics include the history of the word appeasement, use of the word Gallic and French bashing, the use of the language of courtly love in business writing, whether infidel is used appropriately to translate from the Arabic, and, of course, the pronunciation of nuclear.

But despite the backdrop of terrorism and war, the essays are hardly dark and foreboding. Nunberg’s essays witty and his humor a bit droll. He describes the Web, for instance, as “a tool that enables people who have a life to benefit from the efforts of those that don’t.” His essay on whether to call those resisting the US in Iraq as guerrillas, insurgents, or resistance is titled “We’ll Always Have Kirkuk.”

The title essay is what it hints to be, an examination of the pronunciation of nuclear, especially how several recent presidents have pronounced the word. Eisenhower pronounced it /nuc-u-lar /, probably on a model with molecular and particular. The word was a new one for Ike, learned in his middle age, and he probably looked to these other words for guidance on how to pronounce it. Other presidents have not had this excuse.

Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer by training, learned the word as a young man. He tended to pronounce it as / new-klee-uh /. This is more likely an artifact of his Georgia accent rather than mis-education.

Our last two presidents have pronounced it / nuc-u-lar /. (Clinton used both the / nuc-u-lar / and / new-clear / pronunciations about equally; Dubya limits himself to / nuc-u-lar /.) Both men are well educated and don’t have the excuse of not knowing how to pronounce it. Clinton went to Georgetown, Yale, and Oxford. Dubya to Andover, Yale, and Harvard, and his parents never used the / nuc-u-lar / pronunciation.

In the case of the latest two presidents, Nunberg suggests two hypotheses. The first is that it may be a “faux bubba” pronunciation used to make them seem more like good ol’ boys. Clinton has less reason to do this; he is legitimately from poor, Southern roots. Bush, while raised for significant portions of his childhood in Texas, was sent to elite Eastern prep schools at an early age and even while in Texas, as the son of a wealthy politician and oilman, would have had little contact with the “bubba” class.

The second is that they adopted this pronunciation to distinguish themselves from the military and national security professionals. By deliberately mispronouncing the term, the presidents were demystifying the power of nuclear weapons and asserting that they, the ones with their fingers on the nuclear button, could pronounce it any way they pleased.

Which, if either, is correct, is unknown. An important clue would be to see how Dubya pronounces the phrase nuclear family. Unfortunately, no one has caught him using this term.

If you are looking for profound or in-depth insights into the English language, however, you won’t find them here. While the essays are interesting and deftly written, they are too short and Nunberg, while a keen observer, usually doesn’t delve beyond the superficial. Still, the essays are a fun read and avoid the misinformation often found in essays about language.

Hardcover; PublicAffairs Publishers; May 2004; $18.95.

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