Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Thoughts on "nucular"

And now for something more trivial... in a lecture I attended two weeks ago, physicist Richard A. Muller of Lawrence Berkeley National Labs mentioned that Edward Teller --- one of the inventors of nuclear weaponry --- used the term "nucular" to refer to the weapons he was creating. As a result, many of the scientists who worked under him, as well as their lineal "descendants" in nuclear weapons science, adopted the term.

So, ironically, you have a situation where most educated people think saying "nucular" signifies that you're an uneducated rube, but if you go into the national laboratories where actual experts in nuclear weaponry congregate, some of those experts commonly say "nucular" and nobody bats an eye.

(Now, the spelling "nucular" never caught on in polite society, but it seems to me that (sorry Jacques) the oral form came first, and therefore the pronunciation "nucular" can claim correctness as easily as the spelling "nuclear".)

Nevertheless, this fact hasn't stopped journalists and even tenured linguists from devising explanations for this "mispronunciation". I wonder whether Kate Taylor, Geoffrey Nunberg, William Safire, or the editors of the various dictionaries concerned ever bothered to ask the inventors of nuclear weaponry as to how they believed it should be pronounced?

Incidentally, if you look a little further, the story thickens. Wikipedia claims that Teller's testimony against Oppenhiemer, at the latter's 1954 security clearance review, led to a rift between Teller and many of his peers:

Oppenheimer's security clearance was eventually stripped, and Teller was treated as a pariah by many of his former colleagues. In response, Teller began to run with a more military and governmental crowd, becoming the scientific darling of conservative politicians and thinkers for his advocacy of American scientific and technological supremacy.


In the 1980s, Teller began a strong campaign for what was later called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), derided by critics as "Star Wars", the concept of using lasers or satellites to destroy incoming Russian ICBMs. Teller lobbied with government agencies—and got the sanction of President Ronald Reagan—for his plan to develop a system using elaborate satellites which used atomic weapons to fire X-ray lasers at incoming missiles. However scandal erupted when it later became apparent that the scheme was technically infeasible and that Teller (and his associate Lowell Wood) had deliberately oversold the program and perhaps had encouraged the dismissal of a laboratory director (Roy Woodruff) who had attempted to correct the error.

Now, given that "nucular" seems, anecdotally, more common among conservatives than liberals, and more common in Southern dialects of American English than in Northeastern or West Coast dialects, we arrive at an intriguing question. Is the "nucular" versus "nu-clear" split a reflection of that original social rift between the tribes of Oppenheimer and Teller? When G. W. Bush's says "nucular", is it because he and his father absorbed it from the conservative establishment, which in turn absorbed it from the hawkish national-security wonks who lunched with Teller in the late 50's and 60's? When liberals roll their eyes at "nucular", are they unconsciously recapitulating the contempt that Teller's peers felt at his betrayal and subsequent flight into the arms of the right?


  1. Was this some conscious distinction made by Teller, or was he just using bad/lazy English in his day-to-day speech that was then adopted by his underlings and their descendants?

    Either way, I'm not sure that a license to rework the spelling or pronunciation of nuclear should have been extended to the inventors of nuclear weaponry. Were the Curies asked if they wanted to change up their terminology and call it radiativity instead?

  2. I don't know if anyone asked, but scientists make up jargon all the time for the novel phenomena they're describing. Nucular seems like a perfectly useful word for distinguishing between other senses of the word "nuclear", and the particular subset of nuclear reactions that are of interest when you're building a weapon.

    I don't know whether Teller was making this distinction consciously. If he wasn't, well, OK, maybe there was a moment to correct that mistake, but that moment's past. The fact remains that plenty of experts actually use the term; if linguistic prescriptivists really feel qualified to walk into Lawrence Livermore and tell nucular weapons experts how to pronounce their job description, then I encourage them to do so.

  3. My 2nd question was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and I'm certainly not in a discipline from which I can criticize others for coining new terms. In the end, it's moot, but it strikes me as an odd distinction to pronounce a word differently rather than come up with a new term or an overly clever, contrived acronym. Or maybe it was just that the spelling n-u-c-u-l-a-r never made it out of Teller's notebooks.

  4. This is my fault for not being clearer: during the lecture, Richard Muller actually wrote the word "nucular" on the screen, right under "nuclear" and "atomic", as three historical ways of referring to the weapons.

    (Incidentally, apparently some physicists don't like to call them "atomic" weapons, because the thing that makes them special is that they employ the energy stored in the nucleus, as opposed to other parts of the atom.)

    I therefore inferred, from Muller's presentation, that "nucular" was actually a distinct word from "nuclear" and not just a variant pronunciation. Obviously, "nucular" was at least a synonym for "nuclear", and possibly a homonym. I don't know how to decide whether a homonym for X that also sounds very similar to X is a distinct word, or merely a variant pronunciation of X.

  5. Not that this necessarily disqualifies serious treatment of the 'nucular' question, but I'd like to register a more general objection to the premise that experts in a given subfield ought, without great consideration, to be regarded as language leaders. Experts famously use jargon that is not in any useful sense English. Experts say things like: "We leverage multiple data providers to produce a very high quality output with a minimum amount of development against the core data sets enhancing the development speed at which people can bring an application to market." This may, in a small workforce community, be a passable way of communicating, but it is not language that the rest of the world needs any part of.

    That said, I'm open to more context on the nucular question. Though it's worth noting that Jimmy Carter was famous for saying it well before the Bush family was.

  6. I have researched this claim by Muller - and I think it's bogus. Teller has a thick Hungarian accent - so his pronunciation will never be quite "right". But he does not pronounce it as nukular or nucular - he pronounces it as nuclear (with a thick Hungarian accent).

    If you don't believe my counter-claim I invite you to hear for yourself - there is a youtube interview with Teller on the ill-fated Project Plowshare from (start at 0:28 listen closely at ~0:38)

    It's a 1965 interview made by Ohio State University for the USAF.

    I really don't know if Muller created this phonetic mythology himself, or was repeating it. Perhaps he knew Teller and made the determination himself. But as I said, I disagree with the claim (contrast Teller in this interview vs. Bush).

    As I said, I wanted to verify, with evidence. Muller seems to assert without reference, much like I just did for Bush. The difference is that it's quite easy to find clips with Bush, and most people have 1st hand experience from watching Presidential speaks. With Teller, it's necessary to do some digging.