Nucular postings

Over on Facebook, Kathryn Burlingham asks of the linguists in the crowd:

Have you ever heard anyone say that the proper pronunciation of “nuclear” as nookleear, is in part a way to distinguish the energy from the cell part, which is properly pronounced nookyoolar? A friend dumbfounded me with this explanation recently.

This struck me as backwards from the only other report I’ve heard on the matter. I amplified:

But there are two pronunciations around, and several contexts of use, so people will of course try to differentiate the pronunciations via different contexts of use. The differentiation that Geoff Nunberg reported [in his book Going Nucular] had the vernacular variant (“yoolar”) associated with the most common modern context [energy, power], and the formal (once standard, and now still labeled as such by many) variant (“eear”) associated with learnèd/academic contexts [the nuclear family, the nuclear matter of a cell], which makes sense. But then I’ve collected other “reversals of social values” for variants, so maybe the reverse association isn’t unreasonable.

Here’s what’s been said on Language Log and this blog:

AZ, 11/2/03: Lady Mondegreen says her peace about egg corns (link)

ML, 12/30/03: Mispronunciation – or prejudice? (link)

ML, 1/2/04: “Nucular” solecism traced to 200 B.C. (link)

AZ, 6/29/04: The thin line between error and mere variation (part 1 of 2) (link)

AZ, 6/29/04: The thin line between error and mere variation II: going nucular (link)

ML, 10/12/04: Beware linguistic and political stereotypes (link)

ML, 10/13/04: Is parapalegic like nucular? (link)

AZ, 3/21/05: Axe a stupid question (link)

AZ, 5/14/05: More things that aren’t eggcorns (link)

AZ, 4/23/06: Overature to the nucular family and the doctorial committee (link)

AZ, 3/13/08: Zippy goes nucular (link)

AZ, 3/7/11: Two Dingburg memes (link)

Wikipedia page here.

Note: this is about the pronunciation of the word standardly spelled NUCLEAR. But of course informal writing often follows pronunciation, so you can find a fair number of NUCULAR spellings (even eliminating material about pronunciation or mentioning Nunberg’s book.) I’m not endorsing any of this, just reporting it.

5 Responses to “Nucular postings”

  1. johnwcowan Says:

    In “More Things That Aren’t Eggcorns”, you mention chicking. I think this has something to do with the fact that despite the spelling, chicken has two KIT vowels for speakers who don’t have the Weak Vowel Merger, as in the “EAT MOR CHIKIN” sign used by the Chik-Fil-A cows. So if you hypercorrect your -in to -ing, you may well do the same with chicken.

  2. Barrie England Says:

    Is it too obvious to point out that the British pronunciation is /njuːklɪə/, and not /nuːklɪər/, in all senses? Similarly, we never pronounce ‘new’ as /nu:/.

  3. Jason Says:

    Barrie, how does that help with anything?

  4. Steve Kass Says:

    Speaking of senses, “cochlear” in “Axe a stupid question” made me think of “macular,” which made me think to google “maclear degeneration,” which I think I’ve heard said and have now seen written.

  5. johnwcowan Says:

    Indeed, when I was working for Reuters Health in 2003, one story about macular degeneration appeared in Spanish translation as degeneración muscular, a disastrous error. After that, we decided to have a bilingual doctor review all translated Spanish medical stories. I got involved because we needed a method of mapping between a translated story and its English original (if any): all computer-generated identifiers were stripped passing through the translator and the doctor.

    We finally decided to pick out the first five proper nouns in the Spanish story (defined as capitalized words not at the beginning of a sentence) and search the corpus of English stories for them. Given this help, a non-Spanish-speaking assistant was easily able to determine if the top English story was a proper match for the Spanish. The only difficulty arose if there was no English original because the news had originated in a Spanish-speaking country: in that case, the matching algorithm would cough up a hairball of random and unrelated English stories, but again the assistant could click on “Reject” to leave the Spanish story unmatched.

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