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Typos and thinkos: language clues in political speech
on June 12, 2004
Geoffrey Nunberg is, amongst other things, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University, but he's better known to most of us for his witty and perceptive commentaries on popular language usage. Going Nucular is a collection of 65 articles, each one based on a word that is commonly used in political speech. It's an eclectic list: terrorism, vision, freedom, régime, hero, torture, capitalism, postmodern, fascist, google. Then, of course, there's nuclear.
I had a momentary fear on receiving this book that it would be yet another diatribe against (or for) the current president, who is well-known for his tendency to mispronounce nuclear as "nucular." But the author reminds us that this word has tripped up a series of presidents from Dwight D Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton. Nunberg's point, as usual, is more subtle. He notes that some of the people who talk of "nucular weapons" have no difficulty pronouncing "nuclear family." So are they really stubbing their toes on a hard-to-say word or are they indulging in faux-folksy speech?
Warning to grammarians: Nunberg has no patience with the dictionary police. In his opinion, English is at its best in creative hands - just think of Shakespeare. How we use and change words gives those with the ear to hear a wealth of information about how we think. Consider how the media describe those folk in Iraq who oppose US policy. Terrorists? Insurgents? Freedom fighters? Rebels? Patriots? Whichever word is chosen reveals a bias.
All the articles in "Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times" originally appeared either on National Public Radio's Fresh Air or one of several major newspapers over the past few years. Together they illustrate how much more words reveal than their dictionary definitions.