LINGUIST List 15.1622

Sun May 23 2004

Review: Discourse Analysis/Socioling: Nunberg (2004)

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  1. Suzette Haden Elgin, Going Nucular

Message 1: Going Nucular

Date: Sun, 23 May 2004 13:51:42 -0400 (EDT)
From: Suzette Haden Elgin <>
Subject: Going Nucular

AUTHOR: Nunberg, Geoffrey
TITLE: Going Nucular
SUBTITLE: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times
PUBLISHER: Public Affairs/Perseus
YEAR: 2004
Announced at

Suzette Haden Elgin, San Diego State University (retired)


This is not a linguistics book, although much of the material it
contains is of interest to linguists. It's a collection of 66 essays
about language, each roughly four pages long, constructed for the
layperson; many were written (and then spoken) as commentaries on
National Public Radio. It's an ideal book for persuading people to pay
close attention to the words they hear and read, which is a good first
step toward an interest in linguistics; it's an excellent gift
book. It might also be useful as a text for one of those very general
''Introduction to Language'' survey courses for undergraduates,
because each essay would serve as a springboard for vigorous
discussion while offering an opportunity to introduce basic terms and
concepts. The book is all about words, mostly English words -- their
histories, their functions, their oddities, their strategic uses.

In the introduction Nunberg says that the book isn't written for word-
hobbyists but is intended to show us ''what words can tell us about
other things'' (page xii) and to point out ''some of the ways that
words can betray our changing ideas and sensibilities.'' (page xiii)
The essays are divided into eight sections: Culture At Large; War
Drums; Politics As Usual; Symbols; Media Words; Business Cycles; Tech
Talk; Watching Our Language. The description that follows is not
exhaustive, but does cover the majority of the essays.


Culture At Large

This section includes four word-histories: the word ''plastic,'' as it
moved from meaning something glamorous to meaning something tacky,
spinning off a morpheme (the P in ''pleather'') as it went along; the
word ''chastity'' and how it differs from ''celibacy'' and
''abstinence''; the words ''highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow''; the word
''prurient'' and its role in obscenity lawsuits. One essay discusses
the use of ''Caucasian'' for ''white,'' pointing out that it should
have died out long ago, and offers notes on some other ethnic
labels. Another discusses the fact that sport figures once called
''heroes'' are now called ''legends,'' with their legendariness based
primarily on their celebrity status.

War Drums

The seven word-history pieces in this section include essays on: the
words ''infidel'' and ''crusade'' and ''jihad''; the word
''terrorism''y" the word ''evil''; the word ''appeasement'' and its
gradual semantic contamination over time; the word ''protest'' and how
it came to mean ''a demonstration''; the word ''r�gime,'' identified
as both negative and impermanent; and the changing distinction between
''liberty'' and ''freedom,'' with ''freedom'' now meaning what
''liberty'' used to mean. Three essays focus on the problem of
choosing appropriate words -- for naming military operations, for
describing the September 11th attacks, and for labeling those fighting
against the U.S. in Iraq. There's an essay on how the language we use
to talk about war has changed over time. And this section includes the
title essay, ''Going Nucular,'' in which Nunberg asks why George
W. Bush insists on saying ''nucular'' for ''nuclear'' when he
unquestionably knows better, with a nice proposed taxonomy for such
behavior into ''typos,'' ''thinkos,'' and ''faux-bubba'' items.

Politics As Usual

Most of the essays in this section discuss a topic in the context of a
particular political event. One, for example, is a discussion of the
terminology of prejudice, in the context of Trent Lott's remarks about
Strom Thurmond. Another takes up the popular idea that you can explain
things about a culture based on the claim that its language ''has no
word for [X],'' in the context of the Middle East conflicts
(especially the Israeli/Palestinian conflict). There are word-history
essays on ''leftist'' and ''fascist,'' and one on the fad for the
''-ism''suffix, with particular attention to ''me-too-ism.'' One essay
discusses the ''slippery slope'' metaphor -- its history, philosophy,
and rhetoric -- with examples from contemporary events and
issues. There's a good discussion of political euphemisms, contrasting
the ''Orwellian'' ones that most people today spot easily and the more
opaque ones (such as ''family values'') to which we remain
vulnerable. Finally, an essay on the history of British attitudes
toward American English breaks the unpleasant news that the British
perceive George W. Bush as the living personification of American


This brief section includes a piece on American patriotic songs and
terminology, an essay on the words ''patriot'' and ''patriotic'' and
''homeland,'' and a discussion of the Pledge of Allegiance with
attention to the current controversy about the ''under God'' phrase.

Media Words

This section includes a word-history for ''roil,'' and a piece on the
use of the rhetorical device called ''polysyndeton'' (''an A and a B
and a C and a D and an E....''), which Nunberg says is a staple of
book blurbs and eulogies. There's a very nice history of the State of
the Union addresses. And there's an essay on the copula-dropping
Newscaster register so widely used today, characterized as all
participles, with no tense provided.

Business Cycles

Word-histories in this section include essays on: ''capitalist'' and
''capitalism'' instead of ''free enterprise,'' ''greed'' and
''greedy'' (now used mostly of corporations rather than individuals),
and the morphing of ''problems'' into words such as ''solutions'' and
''challenges'' and ''issu�s.'' There's an interesting history of
the technique for naming models of automobiles as ''the semantic
manipulation of demand'' (page 219); and, on page 221, the ingenious
term ''lingua branda.'' An essay on business jargon offers a terrific
quote (page 215) from a memo: ''Cascade this to your people and see
what the push-back is!'' Two essays discuss the appropriation by
business of vocabularies from other sources -- from courtship (with
''woo'' and ''courting'' and ''suitor''), and from Star Trek and Star

Tech Talk

This section includes an essay about Google and the operation of
Internet search engines. A very interesting essay on blogs explains
how blogging fits into the history of personal journaling. Another
essay discusses the way that new technologies are usually named at
first for whatever they're replacing -- like ''icebox'' and
''horseless carriage'' -- and where that leads.

Watching Our Language

Nunberg's long association with dictionary-making and ''usage'' is
reflected in this section. There's an essay on acronyms, with a
mention of the reverse process in which the name is chosen first and
then you look for words to fit it, as happened with the military
acronym ''WAVES.'' An essay on ''like'' in youngsters' speech explains
that ''I said [X]'' reports [X], while ''I was like, [X]'' performs
[X], and discusses prescriptivism. There's an essay on the uproar over
the ''permissiveness'' of Webster's Third New International
Dictionary, with a focus on the word ''ain't''; Nunberg claims that
educated people don't want ''ain't'' to become an accepted word
because it's so useful to them for various kinds of linguistic
snobbery. There's also a useful essay on the history of the spelling


This is an interesting and pleasant book that provides quite a bit of
linguistic information painlessly. The quality of the essays is
uneven, which is to be expected given their number and their eclectic
nature; however, the majority are very well done. The Politics As
Usual section is, to my mind, the strongest section in the
book. Nunberg makes it clear that rigid attitudes about usage -- as
well as the common impression that nonstandard speech is both evidence
of moral decay and a threat to Western civilization -- cannot be
defended, and he does it without ever becoming polemical; that's not


Suzette Haden Elgin is Associate Professor Emeritus, Dept. of
Linguistics, San Diego State University (retired), and founder and
director of the Ozark Center for Language Studies, near Huntsville,
Arkansas. She works primarily in verbal self-defense, especially in
medical discourse. Her research interests include (a) the grammar of
hostile English, and (b) the grammar of her native Ozark English. She
is the author of the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense series and the
Native Tongue science fiction trilogy, and publishes three
newsletters: the Linguistics & Science Fiction Newsletter, the Verbal
Self-Defense Newsletter, and the Religious Language
Newsletter. Webpages for her books are at her website:
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