Lately you don’t hear the word “Japan” without the word “disaster,” and rightfully, if unfortunately, so. The country has endured a recent catastrophe on many levels, and the major disasters are so sad and horrible, and so far overshadow the tiny, barely significant disasters that only a callous, sociopathic pedant would choose to focus on them. And here I am (wave).
I won’t reiterate the specifics of the Japan quake and tsunami, you can find complete coverage on any news channel. It is what you will also find that compels today's rant. Specifically, the news coverage of the damage to several of Japan’s nuclear power plants. More specifically, the apparent inability of an alarming number of newscasters to properly pronounce “nuclear.”
If, now that you know what I’m on about, are not willing to read all the way through: just promise to say “nu-clear” instead of “noo-kyu-lar” and you may be excused from the table.
I’ve given up expecting the USA to say it right, because of its educational paradigm since the late ‘80s: “it’s more important to feel good than to know the right answer.” Learning by repetition and giving failing grades were eliminated because “self-esteem” was deemed more important to our nation's youth than actually being correct. The country is now run by the first results of this “discipline;” a generation of functional illiterates awash in their own sense of entitlement, but which can’t spell the word “entitlement.” For proof you need look no further than the functional (?) illiterate who ran the country for two terms, my pal Dubya. And therein lies the problem. The man mangled the simplest English on a daily basis, so who could be bothered to notice “nookyular” among his avalanche of other mispronunciations and malapropisms? It just didn’t stand out. Clinton did it also, but, I’m forced to admit, he was as hilbilly as they come so again, folks tended to let it slide. Carter? Georgia. I’m just sayin’. I’m told Eisenhower, another Texan, mispronounced it as well, but he’s before my time, and before Eisenhower’s time everyone just said “atomic” which doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say correctly. Apparently “nuclear” does. In fact, I believe we’ve just uncovered a presidentially-supported correlation between saying “nookyular” and saying “y’all.”
And of course, for the past few days and probably many more ahead, you won’t be able to swing a cat without hitting the word “nuclear.” The only worthwhile English-language news channel I get, Euronews, is saying it an average of twice per minute, which is not surprising. What is surprising is to hear this pinnacle-of-proper-broadcast-English say the word wrong just like us peasant Yanks. Unlike Bubba or Dubya, to hear a prim and proper clipped British accent say “nookyular” is one big fingernail scratching one big chalkboard to anyone with sense and care for the language. Which is what I would expect Euronews to have.
Cunning linguists explain this away as “metathesis,” the switching of two adjacent sounds. They example I saw is “iron,” which almost everybody pronounces as “i-urn.” But this is pretty weak because the two pronunciations differ via vowel, not hard consonant, sounds. These can be, and often are, mutated simply by dialect. “Pennsylvania Dutch” is actually “Pennsylvania Deutsch” - people from Germany, not Netherlands. Speaking of Dutch, their “Sinter Klaas” became our “Santa Claus.” In these examples, it’s only vowel sounds that are changed. Nowhere have the discrete hard consonants been rearranged, as they have between “nuclear” and “nucular.” And in any case, this mangling has nothing to do with exotic dialects of foreign languages, it’s simply English speakers unable to speak English.
You see, this particular word is, for better or worse, a make-or-break of perceived intelligence. Say it right and people will wonder if you’ve ever written a book. Say it wrong and they’ll wonder if you’ve ever read one. As presidential linguistics indicate above, “nookyular” equals “redneck.” If that’s the image you want to project, that’s your call. I wouldn’t have thought it was the choice of the Brits, though, and certainly not of their top news presenters. But between them, US presidents, and who knows who else in “authority,” I’m reminded of the Lenin/Goebbels quote, “a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.” It would be very sad if enough "authoritative" people say a word wrongly often enough that we come to believe it to be the right way.
About an hour before I posted this, I visited Euronews' website and made a plea on their "Feedback" page about this. It's a moderated page so I'm not surprised that my comment wasn't released to the viewable stream of posts. However, I just checked Euronews while I was having lunch and in their repeated-hourly report entitled "Japan Fears," ONLY the two 10-second-long segments with announcers who said "nucular" have been removed. Coincidence? Maybe...