Amurica’s Nucular Situation October 20, 2008Posted by Jamie Friedland in Election.
Tags: Bushism, Elitism, McCain, Metathesis, Nuclear, Nucular, Palin, Politics, President, Pronunciation, RNC, Vice President
‘Nuclear’ is a three-syllable, essentially phonetic word. The listed dictionary pronunciation is n(y)oo-klee-er. But you have undoubtedly come across people who think it is pronounced noo-kyuh-ler. One arrives at this pronunciation through a process called metathesis, in which a speaker switches the order of sounds in a word. Like saying pasghetti instead of spaghetti. Metathesis is defined as a speech error, not a pronunciation choice.
Because there are plenty of people running around saying “nucular,” some argue that it is a valid alternative. So what do the dictionaries say? Merriam-Webster’s added the second pronunciation in 1961. Yet the editors received so many indignant letters that since 1981 they have included a note defending its inclusion, citing “widespread usage among educated speakers.” Today, every letter about “nucular” receives a defensive, 400-word reply explaining that they include it merely as an alternative, not as an “acceptable” alternative. (Although I wouldn’t put it past myself, I didn’t write them a letter – I found their response online.)
Now, you may be wondering why, at the end of Bush presidency, I would decide to write about this. My friends, we are on the verge of electing another “alternative pronouncer” into office, and that is unacceptable.
Needless to say, neither “pasghetti” nor “nucular” reflect kindly upon a speaker. When accomplished scientists use the latter, it makes me wonder why they don’t make the effort to correct what is probably just an old habit. But when younger people (and politicians) use it, particularly the kind of people you know haven’t been tossing the word around in casual conversation, I think less of them. Call me judgmental, but “nucular” is not the mark of a good education. I’m not saying that everyone should ostracize people who habitually mispronounce words, but it is cause for valid outrage when that characteristic makes a candidate more popular.
Gov. Sarah Palin is not a gifted speaker. She frequently repeats words in the same sentence repeatedly. She also yet but so strings together conjunctions in the middle of a thought, and appears to think that “job creation” goes at the end of every sentence right before the period. Yet even she correctly pronounced “nuclear” during her breakout speech at the Republican National Convention. Why? Because it appeared on her teleprompter as “new-clear.” I’m serious. It was visible from some camera angles and was even in the text-version of the speech distributed to the liberal elite press. Whether they wanted to avoid the Bush connotation or they agreed with me about the educational connotations of metathesis, somebody at the McCain Campaign wanted to make sure Palin did not say “nucular” during her national debut. First impressions are important. Without that extreme measure, though, she has since reverted to her normal “nucular” pronunciation.
CNN covers the RNC “new-clear” story:
“Bushisms” and simple sentence structures made George W. Bush seem more like an average Joe, and a lot of voters connected with that. Palin strives for the same appeal (and some other appeals Bush could never hope to achieve). As you have surely noticed, she drops the final ‘g’ off every -ing suffix when she speaks. Does that really appeal to the American public? As humorist Scott Blakeman wrote after the Vice Presidential debate, “That’s not endearin’, that’s insultin’. It assumes that if you’re really a hardworking middle class American, you’re too busy to finish pronouncing your words.”
I know that speech patterns are largely a product of one’s upbringing, and that what I’m saying could be considered discriminatory if taken out of context. But we are talking about electing the president and vice president of the United States of America. These people are supposed to be the best we have to offer.
As I discussed in Defending Presidential Elitism, the average American is not qualified to lead the country. Education should not be a liability on the campaign trail, it should be a prerequisite. Our country has suffered from mismanagement for the better part of a decade, and it’s time to put our best foot forward. Is it too much to ask that our president and vice president be able to speak properly?
A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.