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Going Nucular

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, October 2, 2002


There are two kinds of linguistic missteps, the typos and the thinkos. Typos are the processing glitches that intercede between a thought and its expression. They can make you look foolish, but they aren't really the signs of an intellectual or ethical deficiency, the way thinkos are. It's the difference between a sentence that expresses an idea badly and a sentence that expresses a bad idea.

People don't pay much attention to that distinction when they take after the missteps and malaprops of presidents and other political figures. I've always felt that Dan Quayle got a bum rap over his inability to spell potatoes -- I mean, there are people who can spell and people who can't, and God doesn't seem to have paid much attention to other cognitive capacities in spreading that gift around. And while critics were always making fun of Eisenhower's woolly language, it wasn't really a sign of woolly thinking -- most people realized that he was an astute politician, and he could write lucid prose when he felt like it. Ditto former President Bush: he may have had difficulty speaking in complete sentences, but that didn't mean that he wasn't thinking in complete thoughts.

No president has taken more flak over his language than George W. Bush -- not Eisenhower, not even Harding. That's understandable enough; Bush's malaprops can make him sound like someone who learned the language over a bad cell phone connection. "My education message will resignate among all parents"; "A tax cut is really one of the anecdotes to coming out of an economic illness."

The columnists and talk-show monologues have tended to treat those errors as the occasions for mirth, rather than concern, the linguistic equivalents of Gerald Ford's pratfalls. Bush himself encouraged that interpretation with those Letterman and "Saturday Night Live" appearances during the campaign, when he made fun of his inability to pronounce subliminal and said he was "ambilavant" about appearing on the show. It was a shrewd maneuver, as Mark Crispin Miller points out in his recent book The Bush Dyslexicon, a penetrating look at Bush and his language. The self-mockery took the edge off the criticisms by painting Bush as just another irrepressible word-mangler, sort of a Yalie Casey Stengel.

But it isn't always easy to tell whether an error is a typo or a thinko. Take the pronunciation of nuclear as "nucular." That one has been getting on people's nerves since Eisenhower made the mispronunciation famous in the 1950's. In Woody Allen's 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, the Mia Farrow character says she could never fall for any man who says "nucular." That would have ruled out not just Dubya, but Bill Clinton, who said the word right only about half the time. (President Carter had his own way of saying the word, as "newkeeuh," but that probably had more to do with his Georgia accent than his ignorance of English spelling.)

On the face of things, "nucular" is a typo par excellence. People sometimes talk about Bush "stumbling" over the word, as if this were the same kind of articulatory problem that turns February into "febyooary." But nuclear isn't a hard word to pronounce the way February is -- try saying each of them three times fast. Phonetically, in fact, nuclear is pretty much the same as likelier, and nobody ever gets that one wrong. ("The first outcome was likular than the second"? ) That "nucular" pronunciation is really what linguists call a folk etymology, where the unfamiliar word nuclear is treated as if it had the same suffix as words like molecular and particular. It's the same sort of process that turns lackadaisical into "laxadaisical" and chaise longue into chaise lounge.

That accounts for Eisenhower's mispronunciation of nuclear, back at a time when the word was a new addition to ordinary people's vocabularies. And it's why Homer Simpson says it as "nucular" even today. But it doesn't explain why you still hear "nucular" from people like politicians, military people, and weapons specialists, most of whom obviously know better and have been reminded repeatedly what the correct pronunciation is. The interesting thing is that these people are perfectly capable of saying "nuclear families" or "nuclear medicine." I once asked a weapons specialist at a federal agency about this, and he told me, "Oh, I only say 'nucular' when I'm talking about nukes."

In the mouths of those people, "nucular" is a choice, not an inadvertent mistake -- a thinko, not a typo. I'm not sure exactly what they have in mind by it. Maybe it appeals to them to refer to the weapons in what seems like a folksy and familiar way, or maybe it's a question of asserting their authority -- as if to say, "We're the ones with our fingers on the button, and we'll pronounce the word however we damn well please."

But which of these stories explains why Bush says "nucular"? Most people seem to assume he's just one of those bubbas who don't know any better. But that's hard to credit. After all, Bush didn't have to learn the word nuclear in middle age, the way Eisenhower did. He must have heard it said correctly thousands of times when he was growing up -- not just at Andover, Yale, and Harvard, but from his own father, who never seems to have had any trouble with the word. But if Bush's "nucular" is a deliberate choice, is it something he picked up from the Pentagon wise guys? Or is it a faux-bubba pronunciation, the sort of thing he might have started doing at Yale by way of playing the Texas yahoo to all those earnest Eastern dweebs?

Actually, there would be an easy way to tell -- just see how Bush pronounces nuclear in phrases like nuclear family and nuclear medicine. If he says "nucular" all the time, then it's most likely a faux-bubba thing. But if he only says "nucular" for weapons, it's probably a bit of borrowed Pentagon swagger. I'll be keeping my ears peeled.






Copyright 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.