Saturday, January 07, 2006

Deconstructing "nukular"

At his ever-interesting blog Done With Mirrors, Callimachus offers the definitive explanation of why George W. Bush says "nukular" for "nuclear," (as opposed to GW's own father, who pronounces the word conventionally).

Apparently, GW is just following precedent for many Presidents, and even some nuclear (that is, nukular) scientists:

It's not exactly correct to say the president mispronounces the word. He uses an alternate pronunciation -- "nu-ku-lar" -- that might be considered dialectal. It is commonly heard in the U.S. South, and in the U.S. military (which traditionally draws disproportionately from the old Confederacy states). Its use has been noted since the early 1960s among nuclear scientists themselves, including British and Canadian scientists.

Bush is not the only modern president to say it that way. Oddly, his father wasn't among those who did (though he had his own grating way with Sa-a-addam). But Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both Southern men, said "nu-ku-lar." So did John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, who perhaps picked it up during their military service.

The first U.S. president we know of to say "nu-ku-lar," and the first to be widely scolded for it, was Eisenhower, as far back as his "Atoms for Peace" speech to the UN....

According to Callimachus, it turns out the Bush isn't stupid, he's lazy--lazy of tongue, that is. This type of laziness has been common to vast numbers of human beings throughout time, and has contributed greatly to the growth and evolution of language. The process by which nuclear becomes nukular even has a name; it's called metathesis by linguists. The same process has given us such tried and true favorites as "dirt" and "fright."

So, George Bush's pronunciation may really be progressive--although don't tell that to any actual self-labeled "progressives." In fact, it may even be evolutionary.


At 1:00 PM, January 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, those of us who think Bush is stupid have always based our argument on the fact that he makes a common pronunciation error. I guess Bush is really quite intelligent after all.

At 2:18 PM, January 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It does not matter who pronounces the word like that, or why: it is like fingernails on a blackboard, moreso than any other common mispronunciation that springs to mind.

The reason for this is probably that the word refers to such damnably important things-- usually nuclear weapons, in the White House context. That particular gaffe in that particular context is almost physically painful.

And since there is, to my knowledge, no reverse backlash either in the South or the military for pronouncing it correctly, I am completely at a loss as to why no one takes various presidents and speakers aside to point that out. It may seem childish, but part of the White House's job is also effective PR.

At 2:30 PM, January 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anonymous, G.W.Bush has degrees from Yale and Harvard, doesn't he? I sure don't. And I don't think the terribly bright Al Gore has one either.

Sounds like pronunciations of nuclear (nukular) are a problem, much as larynx (larnix), and ask (axe) are.

vitruvius, do we pull everybody aside to correct them? I doubt many would care for that.

At 2:56 PM, January 07, 2006, Blogger neo-neocon said...

motor 1560: I don't tend to censor comments here unless they're egregiously awful in some way. My suggestion: ignore those comments that are not worth responding to.

At 3:04 PM, January 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole nuclear vs. nukular think always bugged me, because the "nukular" pronunciation was actually common where I live in Pennsylvania. Heck, I had a high school biology teacher who pronounced it that way. We all knew it was "wrong", it was almost an inside joke - like saying "Me learned English goodly!"

It's interesting though, once people started making fun of Bush, I stopped hearing it.

At 5:52 PM, January 07, 2006, Blogger TmjUtah said...

Good point, Bunnies.

Of course, the smart folks who end up with their panties in a wad with every instance of Bush using the word have probably never even considered that Bush

a) cares that people understand what he's talking about more than how it's packaged


b) might continue to do it simply to poke them in the ribs now and again.

I favor (a); Bush has never struck me as being petty. The fact that the mass of the opposition he faces is petty, lacking in coherence, and bereft of much smacking of near good faith hasn't changed him much.

At 6:19 PM, January 07, 2006, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Everyone speaks a dialect of English. Speaking Written Standard English aloud is a sign that one is not a native speaker. Some dialects are closer to Written Standard, but not so much as one would think. The preferred dialect, which used to be small town New England, long since migrated West. When I was in school, Medina Ohio was identified as the center. I imagine the American center has proceeded westward and southward. There are vowel changes in California which are moving back east, and may become the standard eventually. There are consonantal changes, particularly around the letter "t," which are already so dominant as to be preferred.

There are excellent reasons to resist language change, and excellent social and economic reasons to adhere closely to Written Standard. It is not a marker of intelligence in any pure sense, however. I grew up in a family, region, and culture which stressed certain forms of speech as an almost-moral virtue. I speak that way, and my children would also be very much out on the bell curve of speaking Written Standard. But I also know enough elementary linguistics to know that the distincition is artificial, cultural, and easily used to perpetuate stereotypes.

At 11:44 PM, January 07, 2006, Blogger goesh said...

He simply is a terrible speaker and comes across as quite dumb, floundering and fumbling with an IQ of 80 at best, no charisma at all, no eloquence, nothing that inspires anyone but Laura, but he is a sound manager and delegator with core values that don't change with polls, and he has militarily engaged us on two fronts with major success and I think his fiscal outlook is sound. All of this more than compensates for appearing to be dumb.

At 11:44 PM, January 07, 2006, Blogger Pancho said...

Well dang! Many of us Bubba's from Midland Texas, like Dubya, have our linguistic eccentricities. Like..."hey Jimmy Mack did you tump your tea over?"

Although, sadly, I don't hear "tump" much anymore every self-respecting Texans knows what happens when you tump your tea over. A combination of tip and dump, I suppose, it has it's own way of expressing an action that is better than it's words of origin.

By the way, my Wife was Dubya's secretary for 5 years in the early 80's and I have a wealth of "Dubya stories" that perhaps I'll publish once he is out of office. One involves eating a whole bag of chocolate covered peanuts in one sitting and the ensuing gastric distress....more later.

At 1:54 AM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush Sr. threw that funny pronunciation on Saddam intentionally. He intentionally mispronounced Saddam so that it sounded like Arabic for “shoeshine boy.” (Or at least I was told I don’t speak Arabic.)

As for Bush Jr. One day I realized that he hates formal teleprompter public speaking, and that I think he gets horribly bored midway through his speeches. Either his mind wonders or he loses his place on the teleprompter. I assume the latter. You will notice he is a much better public speaker when he just shoots from the hip.

At 11:44 AM, January 08, 2006, Blogger SippicanCottage said...

Wisdom is not a form of intellectual weightlifting.

In general, people think everyone one inch taller than them is tall, one inch shorter, short; everyone in the windshield is a slowpoke, everyone in the rearview mirror is a maniac.

One can only watch, bemused, as people comment that Bush is a moron because he mispronounced nuclear in his "speach."

At 12:01 PM, January 08, 2006, Blogger Solomon2 said...

He does have an element of Mrs. Malaprop in him...

At 12:18 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a wonderful way to wake up. Since it is Sunday I always look for something to confess and this morning my confession was:

"You see, my secret shame is that, although I have spent much of my life working in the publishing worlds of New York, Boston, and London, I too pronounce "nuclear" as "nu-ku-lar." That is, unless I am quite careful when I come to the word in everyday speech. This tendency to say "nu-ku-lar" has remained with me no matter how hard I try to correct it. Over the years I have developed two "strategeries" for coping with it. The first is to use the word "atomic" in place of "nuclear," and the second is to think and say two words, "new-clear," for the word. I suspect many other closet metathesians lurk within our nation, but the one's that are most sorely afflicted must be those dwelling deep within AntiBush Nation. Imagine the humiliation of being a GoreCard-Carrying Member of that tribe and never being able to chime in on the ritual BushBash around the dinner table. D'Oh, the humanity!"

At 1:53 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

President Bush is not a particularly good public speaker; but I think too many people associate intelligence with being an oily tongued wordsmith. And I find him quite charismatic; far more than the, ahem, slick former president.

At 2:26 PM, January 08, 2006, Blogger troutsky said...

I dont care how well he speaks and Im trying to think of some other things I could apologize about for him so I could keep my mind off the fact his presidency is such a dismal failure.Lots of other presidents have smirked by the way.

At 2:52 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"... so I could keep my mind off the fact his presidency is such a dismal failure."

Let's see:
Shut down Afghanistan as a terrorist base.
Shut down Iraq as a mad dictatorship, gave freedom to what 25 million people.
Cut taxes across the board.
Economy strong and joblessness low.
Has two supreme court appointments in the bag and is likely to get a third.
Led his party to control of both Houses.
No attacks on the mainland since 9/11

Seems to me you need to get out of that alternate universe more.

At 3:07 PM, January 08, 2006, Blogger TmjUtah said...

Methinks that some folks still cling to "disenfranchised" as their self-identification when "can't win fair elections" is the actual operative reality.

At 5:00 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I think accents are delightfully interesting. What I don't understand is why GW's pronunciation of the word "nuclear" is supposed to be a sign of mental deficiency while the practice of New Englanders to get their "a" ending words mixed up with "r" ending words (and vice versa) is supposed to be high brow. Go figure!

At 8:26 PM, January 08, 2006, Blogger Jamie Irons said...


Students of Greek will be familiar with metathesis, e.g. Mastronarde, Introduction to Attic Greek, p. 142:

"In some verbs the shift in the quantity of the vowel is accompanied by a shift in the positions of the consonants (metathesis)..."

though I had never thought of this as the underlying mechanism behind the shift from "nuclear" to "nukular"...


Jamie Irons

At 10:31 PM, January 08, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neo, I'm glad you're leaving your comments open. So far I would say this is one of the more respectable comments sections around. Of course I don't agree with everything that's said but people generally make lucid arguments and have not resorted to blather.

But more on point with your topic, I have always found it better to read Bush than to listen to him. He is actually quite intelligent and you can see that much more clearly when you aren't distracted by the idiosyncratic nature of his speech. I will also say that, in my opinion, some day when historians analyse this presidency, with the objectivity that time will bring, they will find that the change he has wrought on the world and this country is much more positive and significant than many now realize.

At 3:02 AM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Bush sounds good when he is angry, pissed off, and wants some heads. He also sounds good when he speaks to the military. If he acts like the press is a bunch of military cadets, he'd be golden.

Yes, those of us who think Bush is stupid have always based our argument on the fact that he makes a common pronunciation error. I guess Bush is really quite intelligent after all.

Those that think Bush is stupid have always based their argument on the fact that they themselves are smarter than Bush. But most of the time that isn't true.

At 4:53 AM, January 09, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I worked at Oak Ridge National Labs there were a few physics people who said "Nucular" - considering what they did there I would assume few would call them stupid. I also pronounce it that way, when I say "terror" many northerners hear it as "terra" also. Bush sounds absolutely normal to me - very little different from everyone else I know from here (Knoxville, Tennessee).

In the few years I spent in academia it could be *really* frustrating that I was assumed retarted. It was funny sometimes when I was, patiently, explained how the software and algorthms I wrote worked (along, sometimes, with quotes from papers I wrote). It was comical to see people's faces when they found out my name after a 45 minute patronising speech. Even then a large amount of people that are from large northeastern universities would never accept me, regardless of what I did (it was hard to get more credentials than one of my bosses, yet he was not accepted in some academic circles).

Much as my writing (I'm dyslexic - spelling is difficult) my accent is considered "stupid". For the most part I've learned to live with it, even find quite a bit of amusement from it. People who I think count rarely hold any of it against me. The vast majority have dealt with other accents, other people with some minor learning disability, etc and make thier decision based on the substance of what I say, not how I say it or spell it.

It's not that much different than people who look at an African American and think "Stupid" - both are based on something none of us can help and are simply a fact of where (and from whom) we were born. Except that some prejudices are still ok, some are still even right and proper to a group of people. Most of the amusement I find is like some of the above who can't accept it, but I bet they feel they are quite un-prejudiced and see people for what they are, I've seen it to much to be angered by it anymore.

At 2:34 PM, January 09, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Like Arnold Schwarzenigger, Bush carries his accent with him with pride. Precisely because he dislikes emulating his father or anything about him.

I bet Bush slays himself everyday to realize that he has to clean up his father's messes. Most people can't see this because most people don't see Bush as a person, and that is quite fatal for the enemies of Bush. A weakness I would have taken full advantage of.

At 8:29 PM, January 10, 2006, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

aqualung, what would the peer-reviewed experimental data be that mispronouncing words is the result of a lazy and uninquisitive mind? I'm pretty familiar with the literature on the language/thought connections from Sapir-Whorf to Pinker (and this is one place where I would be a Chomskyite), but I don't know of that work having been done by anyone.

Just throwing off a guess like that, without having done the research strikes me as, well, the product of a lazy and uninquiring mind.

At 12:59 PM, January 11, 2006, Blogger FrankenLooper said...

AVI said: aqualung, what would the peer-reviewed experimental data be that mispronouncing words is the result of a lazy and uninquisitive mind? (snip)

Just throwing off a guess like that, without having done the research strikes me as, well, the product of a lazy and uninquiring mind.

He is just repeating what he's heard others say, and trying to pass it off as fact. It is a commonly-used artifice of whichever segment of the political spectrum happens to find itself out of popular favor at the time; used by both "flavors".

Remember The Gingrich crowd during the Clinton era? They alsmost invented the talking-points mantra of "Say it often enough and it becomes truth." I seem to remember that James Carville perfected it, however.

I can't tell you how many times that I heard Gingrich and Carville say the opposite thing, repeatedly, as if it were gospel truth, and also in the tone of "My respected opponent must be an absolute idiot for disagreeing with me."

Back on topic. I'm Southern. I'm not stupid--that I know of. One of the most entertaining things that I've ever heard was a happily un-reconstructed Brooklynite whom I worked with telling me how stupid that Southerners were, and how you could tell that just by listening to them "tawk". He said that in a near-incoherent dialect. He wasn't stupid either, just ignorant of the issue at hand.

On a lighter note, we used to really enjoy playing poker with fellows who were new to the South, and who also believed the language stereotype that they had heard all of their lives. :-)

At 10:47 AM, January 12, 2006, Blogger Asher Abrams said...

Can you stand one more comment on nukular versus nuclear?

The word "nucleus" is, IIRC, an irregular diminutive of the Latin nux, or nut. The regular form of the diminutive, though, would be "nuculus".

At 10:08 PM, January 31, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My humble and linguistically challanged background has no patience for this Southern interpretation of the word nuclear. That is not how it is spelled. That is not how it is pronounced here in the Blue States...and not how I want to hear it. The connotations of the word nuclear are far too grave for a "folksy" touch. I will debate Bush's intellingence till the day he's impeached...but I will never accept his pronunciation of this word

At 12:02 AM, May 29, 2006, Blogger Epicuros said...

"Nukular" is not the only indication of G.W.B.'s speaking inadequacy! I have listened to his speaches several times and, although English is not my first language, I have detected several mistakes suggesting cultural poverty.

One impressive passage from a press conference: When a journalist asked GWB a question regarding the Guantanamo prisoners, he responded with: "All I know is that these are very bad people". No lanhuage erros here but what an educated answer!

At 9:11 AM, September 26, 2007, Blogger nic rossouw said...

nukular is one of many deliberate mispronunciations that bush uses to make hiself more common, while at the same time condescending to everyone he addresses. i think will ferrell does bush better than bush does at this point and should take over for the rest of the presidency.

personally i ignore his word tick and focus on his actions, and i think if you do that it is inescapable that bush should face a war crimes trial. if he were the christian he proclaims himself to be he would turn himself in.


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