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Going Nucular: Language, Politics. and Culture in Confrontational Times
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Geoffrey Nunberg can make one quite self conscious to write even a simple sentence. And yes, that is a compliment. A regular language commentator on NPR's Fresh Air, Nunberg examines the curious ways in which the modern language expresses far more about history, politics, and culture than most casual English users would ever realize. Going Nucular, besides having one of the more whimsical titles to come along in a while, offers up scores of chapters, each examining specific words, phrases, or verbal tendencies. And while words like "terrorism", "fascism", "appeasement", and "Caucasian" (and even the hapless "like" and "ain't") are tossed about regularly in contemporary usage, achieving an understanding of their origin and evolution can serve to better explain not just the word but the issue to which it is attached. Other language books have become popular among the "grammarati" for their hard line approach but Nunberg seeks to explore and understand rather than to enforce and punish. To that end, he defends "blog" as being a verb and noun that has earned its place in the language; it's very phonetic clunkiness being part of the appeal. And though he can diagram a sentence with the best of them, Nunberg is at his most delightful when shining a harsh lingual light on the ways in which the average person encounters words every day. A stinging and hilarious indictment of TV news' weird obsession with the present tense ("In North Dakota, high winds making life difficult") makes the reader hear the evening news in an entirely new way. Going Nucular is much more than a nudge and a wisecrack to self-appointed word cops, it's an insider's tour of the vernacular by the English teacher you only wish you had. --John Moe --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Stanford linguistics professor Nunberg suggests using language as a "jumping-off point" to learn more about Americans evolving values and attitudes in this feisty, humorous collection of essays gleaned from his NPR and newspaper commentaries. Nunberg cracks the codes embedded in many familiar terms used in media, business, technology and politics to reveal unexpected insights about our fractious society. Marching straight into the culture wars, he observes that the "old-fashioned" racial term "Caucasian" remains an acceptable euphemism for white, unlike the similarly dated racial categories, "Negroid" and "Mongoloid." "Caucasian," he concludes, "is a cultural category in racial drag." He deconstructs the notion of "class warfare" and explores how Americans comfort in using the prefix "middle" with "class"but not "upper" or "working"speaks volumes about contemporary ideas on wealth, privilege and social mobility. The wordsmith also blows the whistle on the rhetorical gymnastics surrounding the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the war on terror. American foreign policy should not hinge on stamping unfriendly governments with absolute yet conveniently vague epithets like "evil" when a tag like "rogue states" works with fewer indignant howls, he says. As Nunbergs title suggests, pronunciation can also be political: President Bushs much-lampooned utterance "nucular" could be either a nod to "Pentagon wise guys" or a sly "faux-bubba" gimmick to curry favor with some voters. While liberals dont escape criticism, Nunberg unleashes his well-chosen barbs from a left-of-center perch. Conservatives, especially pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan, receive special scrutiny for what Nunberg says are the simplistic linguistic devices they use to appeal to their audiences. Nunberg avoids hasty conjectures, and the provocative clues scattered across these pages should alert readers to the "linguistic deceptions" in their midst.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
In the last 60 years in the United States, we have seen a substantial increase in the kind of political language that George Orwell satirized in 1984. When it's very overt, we all get the message. When it's a little more subtle, we may be manipulated without realizing it. Professor Nunberg is very sensitive to that problem, and this book will help protect your unconscious mind for unperceived assaults.
Stanford professor of linguistics Dr. Geoffrey Nunberg has taken a number of his "Fresh Air" commentaries and brief articles from leading publications in the last few years, and grouped them into somewhat related areas. He begins with Culture at Large, moves on to War Drums, sidles over to Politics as Usual, looks next at Symbols, before considering Media Words, then lampoons Business Cycles and Tech Talk before finishing with words to help us while we're Watching Our Language.
Foes of President Bush and conservative talk show commentators will probably enjoy the book the most. The title piece looks at the great difficulty the president has in pronouncing "nuclear" when he's referring to atomic issues . . . and takes a sideways swipe at his possible motivations in conceivably making this mistake deliberately.
But the book has more charm than that. In many cases, he shares with us the arrival and departure of various words into common use while giving us a sense of what it all means. An early essay on how "plastics" when from positive to negative is a good example. I was pleased that he also took on the label of "Caucasian" which I have never understood the reason for. In sympathy with the youngsters who compete in spelling bees at the national level, he wonders what it proves that some can and cannot spell words that hardly anyone knows and which don't spell much like they sound. He also has kind words for the use of "ain't" and what purposes it can serve.
Some of the usual targets take their shots too, such as postmodernists.
Business authors, reporters and leaders will probably not stop blushing for two decades from the unerring rapier of commonsense aimed at their inflated use of language.
There's even a nice look at whether and when adverbs make sense to add.
It was with great relief that I found that he isn't all that comfortable with the grammar police, noting how many times the required constructions look, read and sound awful!
I suspect that this would have been a better book if limited to just one area -- like the current presidential campaign . . . but it's more than rewarding as it is. I hope Professor Nunberg will consider creating something special next year to deepen the points he has made here.