Going Nucular

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"You can't say nuclear; that really scares me," sings the cartoon Kerry to the cartoon Bush in Gregg and Evan Spiridellis' satirical short This Land. It bothers me too. But as Nick mentions, Jimmy Carter, a featured speaker at the Democratic convention yesterday, has the same problem, despite his service as a nuclear engineer in the Navy. (Maybe it's a regional trait; do all Southern politicians have trouble pronouncing the word?) While Carter was generally regarded as smart (though ineffectual) despite his tendency to say "nucular," Bush's mispronunciation is widely seen as a sign of his stupidity.

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  1. Umbriel: Maybe he sees them as interchangeable, the way I say route both “root” and “rowt”, or either both “eether” and “eyether”.

  2. i grew up saying nucular. i think it is an accent thing.

  3. It’s a ploy on Bush’s part…he plays up his “stupidity” to engender his most powerful ally, underestimation. Plus, when you know your hardcore opponents hate you for your mannerisms, you use them to maximum effect to piss your enemies off. (Reagan and Clinton great examples)

    Check out Eisenhower’s second term press conferences…he somwtimes pulls an “Admiral Stockdale,” i.e., actually loses his train of thought and has to be prodded back on to subject.

    Meanwhile behind the scenes Ike’s ruthlessly expanding covert operations abroad.

  4. “Bush’s mispronunciation is widely seen as a sign of his stupidity.”

    If by “widely seen” you mean amongst the leftist, pseudointellectual chattering classes, then yeah, it’s “widely seen” that way.

  5. Do Jeb or Marvin or Neil have the same accent/affectation? BTW, I don’t think that Midland-Odessa, TX is “Southern” by any stretch of the imagination.

  6. The Atlantic’s most recent cover story compared Bush’s performance in the Texas gubernatorial debates to his more recent public manner, and notes that he seems much more fluid and articulate then. The author,James Fallows, notes (but doesn’t endorse) the theory that deliberately dumb-ifying himself was part of an attempt to affect the “common touch” that his father, astonished by supermarket barcode technology, never quite got the hang of.

  7. Saying “nuclear” as “nucular” is an example of metathesis — interchanging adjacent vowels and consonants that are otherwise hard to say. That phenomenon is why we don’t pronounce iron “I run.” Regional variations in accent — such as a Southern accent — will affect when a speaker will use a metathesis.

    Poor spellers will sometimes spell out a metathesis (e.g., “nucular”). That raises a question about whether someone who uses a metathesis is doing so unconsciously or out of ignorance of the actual spelling of the word. You can consciously avoid the metathesis if you want to avoid that inference, but it doesn’t mean that someone who does use a metathesis is ignorant or uneducated.

  8. Boy is this one getting old.

    You’d think we could be focusing on stupid Boston accents this week. Er ah er er…

  9. Julian,

    Er uh, isn’t the barcode thing a sort of urban legend? The scanner was the newest type, and President Bush the Elder was showing interest in the new technology or something?

    Er uh, here we go…

    http://www.snopes.com/history/american/bushscan.htm

  10. I’m a Democrat, but the technology that Bush was amazed by wasn’t a normal bar code system. It was a system that scanned an entire shopping cart full of groceries while they were still in the cart.

  11. simply because the scanner thing was a lie (liberal media lies? no!) doesn’t mean that bush might not want to avoid having it happen to him.

    many people that I know who aren’t from the south also use nucular… but they’re high energy physicists and electrical engineers and obviously aren’t as smart as english majors!!!

  12. BTW, I don’t think that Midland-Odessa, TX is “Southern” by any stretch of the imagination.

    Well, they certainly have strong accents, there. As a Texas boy born and raised, I can tell you that lots of Texans say nucular.

    Is it an affectation on Bush’s part? Probably. Is it conscious? Lots of politicians and other salesmen are natural mimics, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it kind of came on him. I mean, I doubt he was down in the Hidden Neo-Con Fortress one day with Cheney and Wolfowitz and they suddenly had this brainwave about regional pronunciations.

  13. There was a bit on Fresh Air a couple years ago by their linguist in residence, Geoff Nunberg, about “nuclear” vs. “nucular.”

    http://freshair.npr.org/day_fa.jhtml?displayValue=day&todayDate=10/01/2002
    (it’s about 6 minutes long)

    He points out that presidential mispronunciations of nuclear date back to Eisenhower and include Carter and Clinton, but not Bush I.

    He dismisses the methathesis (he doesn’t use that word) explanation because that particular series of sounds is generally not that hard to pronounce, and in fact pops up in some common words. He suggests Eisenhower’s mispronunciation might have reflected a “folk etymology,” where an unfamiliar word is reconfigured to sound like a more familiar word. Of course this (one would hope) doesn’t apply to W. Nunberg rather unconvincingly offers what he considers two likely possibilities: 1) it’s a “faux Bubba” affectation he picked up in the Ivy League or after, or 2) he picked it up from some Pentagon folks who commonly say “nucular.” He suggests these two possibilities could be distinguished by seeing how he pronounces the word in other contexts (nuclear family, nuclear medicine…).

    I have a hard time believing there are that many engineering and military folks who mispronounce it, but that’s his take.

  14. “While Carter was generally regarded as smart (though ineffectual) despite his tendency to say “nucular,” Bush’s mispronunciation is widely seen as a sign of his stupidity.”

    The press and public are attracted to details that comport with the established pre-existing narrative. For example, Al Gore misidentifying the emergency management official he toured Texas with was widely reported, and interpretted, as “there goes that liar, Al Gore.”

    Reagan getting away with claiming he didn’t know anything about Iran-Contra is another example.

  15. A focus on apology for mangled pronunciation obscures the rhetorical device of this post. Suppose we allow that some might argue on broad grounds that GWB is in fact stupid, or at least demonstrates a certain lack of interest in the facts, understanding, and reasoning needed to effectively govern an empire. It is to be expected that some small characteristic will become symbolic and evocative of the larger argument. Not at all surprising then that Mr Carter, roundly derided by all and sundry as being too smart for his own good, could exhibit the same characteristic without invoking the same conclusion … cause, effect, and symbol are reversed.

    Which is one of the most common retorical devices used on the right to destroy civil discourse: limit the context to a simple fact, demand a yes/no answer, then draw an irrelevant but emotive conclusion. Great for scoring points and confusing the populace however.

  16. Hanah Metchins,

    Are you a Yankee?

    R.C. Dean,

    Texas ain’t part of the South. 🙂

    My wife and I are both from Alabama (the real South – or “Souf”), however, I say “nuculur” and she says “nuclear.”

  17. apthorp,

    Is that really a common rhetorical device just for the right? I can think of a lot of lefties who are quite good at it too. A very recent and prominent example would be Michael Moore – you basically described his M.O. for most of F 9/11 (not counting the parts that are just outright lies).

  18. “Souf,” “harrican,” “birfday,” etc. also commonly used in the South. We also “carry” you to the store if you offer you a ride there.

  19. Carter was a nuclear submariner. He has heard the word pronounced correctly thousands of times and failed to correct his pronunciation, yet he is considered smart by some folks.
    You say tomato…

  20. Re: the barcode thing… huh, learn something new every day.

  21. Which is one of the most common retorical devices used on the right to destroy civil discourse: limit the context to a simple fact, demand a yes/no answer, then draw an irrelevant but emotive conclusion.

    I’ll try to remember that only the Right uses that tactic… the next time some left-winger responds to my opposition to socialized medicine by saying “don’t you care about the people who can’t afford health insurance?”, or my opposition to draconian environmental laws by saying “Do you want polluted rivers?”.

    Anyway, “nucular” is a common way of pronouncing the word — common enough that it seems silly to say that it’s “wrong” (see also: creek/crick).

  22. rick laredo,
    Jimmy Carter was accepted into the navy’s nuclear power program, but resigned his commission before he actually served on a nuclear sub. I know he made it to prototype (which would indicate that he completed navy nuclear power school), but don’t know if he completed it.

  23. (Maybe it’s a regional trait; do all Southern politicians have trouble pronouncing the word?)

    Wait, but was Bush educated at Exeter or Andover or someplace like that in New England? He’s not exactly a farm boy, like Carter was.

  24. Well in good old Indiana, everbody know our first President was George Warshington, how’s that for methathesis or maybe methsynthesis

  25. I said “nucular” up into my teens, which is about the time my Southern accent (mostly) disappeared. Don’t know where it came from, but I will note that nuclear is so well known as an oft-mispronounced word that plenty of educated Southerners probably make an effort to pronounce it correctly. I’m originally from northern Alabama with Tennesseans for parents, if that helps our resident linguists 🙂

  26. “Maybe it’s a regional trait; do all Southern </sarcasm>[Southern, Texan, what’s the diff?]</sarcasm> politicians have trouble pronouncing the word?

    Nah. Bush’s accidental-on-purpose failure to pronounce “nuclear” correctly has brought howls of derisive laughter from some of his fellow Texans, too. It was the subject of one of Rachel Lucas’s rants a year or so ago.

  27. Thanks Kent, never to old to get educated. /R

  28. First off, Texas is not a Southern state. Secondly, even if it were, “nucular” is not a Southern thing. People down here – or in Tennessee at least – think it’s as stupid as the rest of the country does.

  29. I’m from north Alabama too (hi, Pro Libertate), and I’ve never said “nucular.” *shudders*

    Grunhaus, I think the term you’re looking for is epenthesis. 🙂

  30. Pro Libertate and Clancy,
    I, too, am from N. AL (Attalla). I can’t recall ever saying nucular – although I have problems with plenty of other words. Is our presence here an indication of rampant libertarianism among N. Alabamans or that we are more likely than those from other areas to goof off by frequenting H&R?

  31. Clancy,

    I’m from L.A. (lower Alabama) and “nuculur” is commonly said there. Also my wife’s older relatives (all from the Huntsville, Scottsboro, etc. area) all say “nuculur.”

  32. I’ve started to get used to “nucular”. The one that really got to me was “subliminable”. I mean, come on. THE MAN SAID “SUBLIMINABLE” and we’re still talking about “nucular”?

  33. “Usage Note: The pronunciation (nookyu-ler), which is generally considered incorrect, is an example of how a familiar phonological pattern can influence an unfamiliar one. The usual pronunciation of the final two syllables of this word is (-klee-ar), but this sequence of sounds is rare in English. Much more common is the similar sequence (-kyu-ler), which occurs in words like particular, circular, spectacular, and in many scientific words like molecular, ocular, and vascular.”

    The above is from dictionary.com (with schwa and other lesser used symbols that don’t cut and paste well, replaced). I had on orgo chem teacher who pronounced it “nukular”, drove me a little crazy at first, but I got used to it. Another student decided to ask/correct him about the pronunciation. The teacher replied by saying that since the student was obviously aware of what the word meant, regardless of pronunciation, he must just be nit-picking about a cosmetic issue. Throughout the rest of the semester, any of that student’s subsequent questions were nitpicked by the teacher for pronunciation/grammatical errors. Style and substance, different priorities for different folks.

  34. Ok, in the North you learned proper diction and pronunciation by repeating the phrase:
    The rain falls mainly on the plains in Spain.
    Down in the South we repeated the phrase:
    i`m gwanna pull my haar out with a paar of ware plars.
    Still don`t know why GW talks like a Geechee.

  35. Translation of the Southern phrase:
    I am going to pull my hair out with a pair of wire pliers.

  36. Wow, who knew Reason had so many Alabamian readers (Hi, y’all!)? I’m from Huntsville, but I’m not sure it’s a good example for determining dialect, with all of the space program folks there. Now that I think about it, I’m lucky I don’t have a German accent. Not that it matters, Florida can exterminate any accent.

  37. “Is our presence here an indication of rampant libertarianism among N. Alabamans or that we are more likely than those from other areas to goof off by frequenting H&R?”

    Ha! Goofing off for me most definitely.

    I guess there are lots of Bama folks who say “nucular,” but I didn’t hear it growing up…or maybe I blocked it out…but I clearly recall that I, my parents, and my teachers, at least, said “nuclear.”

  38. War Eagle!!!! 🙂

  39. When did Texas stop being a southern state?

  40. I think quite a few Texans take issue less with the southern thing than with the state thing.

  41. I’m from North Carolina, and I certainly hear (and say), “nyu-kyu-lar,” quite often.

    Note that there is the “y” sound before the “u.” Very important– Southern speech has preserved the original “yu” sound in many words (Duke, tune, new, Tuesday, etc.) where the rest of the US mispronounced them into a new standard. (British speech tends to also conserve the original sounds.) Southern speech has also occasionally introduced the more familiar (in Southern speech) “yu” sound in other words, such as coupon (“kyu-pon”), where it did not exist originally.

    And we Southerners still know that “cot” and “caught” have different vowels, whereas the rest of y’all uneducated folk blatantly mispronounce them.

  42. I think “nucular” a sub-regionalism within the South, though I’m not sure exactly which parts. The people who say it usually also say “fermiliar” for “familiar”.

  43. I read somewhere that Bush’s pronunciation of “nucular” is an affectation. Any truth there ?

  44. I don’t know if it’s affected, but Bush isn’t consistent with it. I heard a speech of his the other day in which he said “nuclear”, and then “nucular” in the next sentence.

  45. I have a lot of family in Midland, and everyone there has pretty much the same accent as Bush.

    Texas being “Southern” is debatable, I guess, but texans definitely have a drawling accent.

    I don’t hold it against either Bush or Carter.

  46. The answer on ‘coupon,’ specifically, is that it is pan-American–loads of Americans say ‘kyoopon’ from every part of the country, so it has no regional marking. Bothers me (when I’m not wearing my linguist hat) but it’s by no means limited to the South.

  47. “First off, Texas is not a Southern state. Secondly, even if it were, “nucular” is not a Southern thing. People down here – or in Tennessee at least – think it’s as stupid as the rest of the country does.”

    I’m in Tennessee too and you’re no more authority on what people think here than you are on “what the rest of the country” thinks – which is not at all.

  48. Pro Libertate,
    The sad thing is that all of the Reason readers from AL seem to have moved out of the state. I graduated from UAH undergrad, so I know what you mean about Huntsville not being representative of the state.

    I’ve lived in a dozen states including Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, but my accent won’t go away.

    War Eagle, Gary Gunnels! Carnell for the Heisman!

  49. Geoff Nunberg (one of the few Linguist popularizers that non-linguists seem to notice) has a reasonable discussion on this pronunciation at http://www.languagelog.org–do a search for ‘nuclear’ and ‘nunberg’ and you’ll find it. He suggests the origin is an analogy with all the technical words in English that end in ‘-ular’ (popular, circular etc.), but that Bush’s use of it is intentional–to convey a ‘folksy’ persona.
    On the other hand, there’s a few pieces of incorrect folk dialectology in some of the earlier posts.
    1) The dropping of y’s that someone referred to earlier is not relevant to the ‘nuclear/nucular’ issue, since nobody drops y’s after k–nobody confuses ‘cute’ with ‘coot’. y’s are dropped only after t and d (i.e. ‘tune’ rhymes with ‘toon’, ‘dune’ with ‘(Bonny) Doon’ in almost all of the US. (y’s are not dropped after p/b either–‘beaut’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘boot’)
    2) Also, the ‘cot’/’caught’ distinction is much more widespread than just the South. The two are distinguised virtually everywhere east of the Mississippi, from Boston to Chicago to Texas, but have merged west of there (and in all of Canada).
    Sorry to preach, but I teach American dialectology for a living…

  50. When did Texas stop being a southern state?

    East Texas is southern, but it ends at Dallas. Fort Worth ain’t the south, and neither are Austin, Brownsville, El Paso, or San Antonio. And Houston? I don’t know what to say about Houston. 🙂

  51. When did Texas stop being a southern state?

    East Texas is southern, but it ends at Dallas. Fort Worth ain’t the south, and neither are Austin, Brownsville, El Paso, or San Antonio. And Houston? I don’t know what to say about Houston. 🙂

  52. Geoff– actually, I’d say that it is related. Southerners preserve the “yu” sound so much that, in analogy, we’re apt to put it in in words where it never was originally. Coupon is an example. (I frequently hear it as “kyu-pon” on radio and TV advertisements.)

  53. In any case, my main point is that I get eternally frustrated at people making fun of that particular proununciation. (And if people complain that it’s not how it’s spelled… well, I have blackguard, victuals, and forecastle, worcester, and all sorts of other words to complain about.)

    It’s an endless source of frustration, especially considering all the irritating (to me) dialect features that others have that I don’t complain about. Worst of course are the Midwesterners who insist that *they* don’t have an accent.

  54. Are they as bad as Canadians who insist they have no accent?

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