Friday, October 03, 2008

The Nucular Option

There's a war on. One of words, not bombs.

Language doesn't sit still. Dictionaries don't dictate usage, they reflect it. And for years I've heard to this sneering mispronunciation of a scientific term take root in the sidewalk cracks of everyday life.

I've read a few theories. One is that "nucular" was used by military folk when referring to "nukes" (nuclear weapons). Another is that in English, the "cu-lar" sound is more common (particular, molecular, circular) and easier to say than the "cle-ar" sound. Although "likelier" doesn't seem that hard to say.

Whatever the origin, it seems that saying "nucular" is meant to label the speaker as being anti-elite, anti-Northeastern, anti-establishment (forgetting for the moment who happens to be holding the White House). It says "I'm just plain folks, don't be afraid of me, I'm not one of those smart guys (or gals) trying to trick you. You can trust me."

Know what? When someone says "trust me" is the time to open the horse's mouth wide and check out those teeth.

Now I don't feel any shame in being considered intelligent or educated. And I like the idea of smart people running things (with proper oversight, as braininess is no prevention against greed or narrow self-interest). I feel much safer driving over a bridge or using a computer or riding an elevator in a building created by someone who knows how to pronounce a scientific term correctly.

But more and more, using the "correct" pronunciation seems to be shorthand for "I'm an arrogant asshole and I'm going to use my cleverness to screw you first chance I get."

Unfortunately, after sixteen presidential years of "nucular" -- by the folksy Clinton, who seemed to pronounce it either way, and the sneering Bush, who seems to want people to forget he's a Yalie -- the prospect of "nucular" as an acceptable pronunciation seems to be getting likuler all the time.

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