In these witty and artful investigative essays, Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor of linguistics at Stanford, Fresh Air regular, and contributor to the Sunday New York Times “Week in Review” section shows how our use of language reflects the nation in which we live and explores the most controversial topics of our time.
The words that echo through Geoffrey Nunberg’s brilliant new journey across the landscape of American language evoke exactly the tenor of our times. Nunberg has a wonderful ear for the new, the comic and the absurd. He pronounces that: “‘blog’ is a syllable whose time has come”, and that “You don't get to be a verb unless you're doing something right”, with which he launches into the effect of Google on our collective consciousness. Nunberg notices the shifting use of “Gallic” as we suddenly find ourselves in bitter opposition to the French; he’s fiercely funny in his demystifcation of economists who can’t deal with hard times – “a ‘recession’ is really no more exact a notion than a bad hair day.” And perhaps only Nunberg could compare “America the Beautiful” with the Syrian national anthem that contains the line “A land resplendent with brilliant suns… almost like a sky centipede.”
At the heart of the entertainment and linguistic slapstick that Nunberg delights in are the core concerns that have lately occupied American minds. “Going Nucular,” the title piece, does more than poke a bit of fun at the President’s expense. It exemplifies the message of the book: that in the smallest ticks and cues of language, the most important and controversial issues of our times can be heard and understood—if you know how to listen for them. Lucky for us, Nunberg has dazzling receptors, perfect acoustics, and a deftly elegant style to relay his wit and wisdom.
Geoffrey Nunberg is a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information and a Consulting Full Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. He is chair of the Usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Since 1989, he has done a regular language feature on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and recently his features on language and current events have appeared regularly in the Sunday New York Times “Week in Review.” He is the author of The Way We Talk Now (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), a collection of his radio commentaries.