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?