Date: Sun, 23 May 2004 10:01:19 -0500 From: Suzette Haden Elgin Subject: Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times
AUTHOR: Nunberg, Geoffrey TITLE: Going Nucular SUBTITLE: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times PUBLISHER: Public Affairs/Perseus YEAR: 2004
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.
DESCRIPTION OF CONTENTS
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''; 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 ''régime,'' 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 English.
Symbols 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 ''issues.'' 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 Wars.
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 bee.
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 easy.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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: http://www.sfwa.org/members/elgin.