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Review of  Going Nucular

Reviewer: Suzette Haden Elgin
Book Title: Going Nucular
Book Author: Geoffrey Nunberg
Publisher: PublicAffairs (imprint of Perseus Books)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 15.1622

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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.


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.

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.

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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