the blog

Going “Noo-kyuh-ler”

It’s always bugged me that President Bush can’t pronounce the word nuclear. I thought it was because I am a speech person, thus prone to being critical about such things. Until lately, however, the only people to call him on it publicly were those fun-loving folks at jibjab, which they did beautifully in their send-up of the 2004 presidential campaign.

So it’s been interesting to see others are finally coming out of the woodwork and criticizing the President’s mangling of the word. A couple of weeks ago, it was Andy Rooney from 60 Minutes. Rooney was speaking about presidential speaking, noting that the words in Bush’s State of the Union speech didn’t sound like Bush’s words, except for “nucular.”

Then, Dick Cavett wrote a terrific piece in his new New York Times blog on how sloppy we’ve become with the English language. He spent more than a paragraph on “nucular” bemoaning the fact that the president cannot pronounce one of the most important words in his vocabulary. His conclusion: Sloppy language leads to sloppy thought, which leads to sloppy legislation, a sloppy war, etc.

I’m reluctant to go that far, though I surely do like to hear words pronounced correctly by someone with such an important job. My daughter, Britt Olsen-Ecker, in her research for a presentation on the same topic, shared some interesting information with me. For one thing, our language, including definitions and pronunciations, are constantly evolving. A good and old example is the word “third.” Apparently, way back before the 1500s, it used to be “thrid” but over time, people mispronounced it as “third” and this alternative caught on.

I call these occurrences speech viruses because they’re very contagious.

With regard to nuclear, a lot of people get it wrong, not just the president. Britt claims the reason for this is something called metathesis, the act of switching sounds around. We don’t hear many words with the syllables “cle-ar.” But English contains many common examples of “cu-lar” such as particular, secular, muscular and vascular. So it’s easy to become confused. Still, I’d hate to see “nucular” fall into the virus category.

On the rare occasions when I’ve had to correct this pronunciation, I’ve offered a simple and effective technique: Combine the words “new” and “clear.” The result isn’t as sharp as the intended pronunciation, but most people won’t notice.

So, Mr. President, if you’re interested, you might try the following: First, say “new”, second say “clear” and thrid, put them together as “new-clear.” You may think it’s irrevelant, but I think it’s an integral part of a leader’s job.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman. All Rights Reserved.

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