Editor’s note: Michael Ackley’s columns are satire and parody based on current events, and thus mix fact with fiction. He assumes informed readers will be able to tell which is which.
The gentlemen on the television were erudite and well spoken, even urbane, and up to date on world affairs.
Inevitably, the three, a moderator and two experts, turned to the problem of North Korea and its nuclear weapons threat.
One by one they intoned the word:
Naturally, I began to holler at the unheeding television: “It’s ‘new-klee-ar’! ‘New-Klee-Ar’! ‘NEW-KLEE-AR’!”
Any properly educated person knows that English, for all its orthographic irregularities, is basically phonetic and that from a word’s spelling one may gain at least a clue as to its pronunciation.
Yet learned people look at the word “nuclear” and pronounce it noo-kyoo-ler, despite the fact that it contains no “cue,” no “que,” no “key-oo,” no “kyoo.”
The solecism does not discriminate. It is uttered with equally nauseating frequency by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives and those who are totally innocent of political opinion.
There are variations, of course. President Bush pronounces it something like “noo-ca-ler,” and I recall being perplexed in my youth by President Eisenhower, who somehow looked at the letters and derived the sound “noo-clin-er.”
But by far the most common mispronunciation is noo-kyoo-ler, and it crops up in the speech of individuals who are grammatically fastidious and who falter on no other word.
Further, the mispronounced word carries a strange enchantment. Those who abuse “nuclear” cannot hear the difference between the correct and the erroneous. Take this conversation I had with a fellow journalist – a fine reporter and excellent writer – during which I attempted to fine tune her articulation:
I: It’s pronounced nuclear.
She: That’s what I said.
I: No, you said noo-kyoo-ler. It’s nuclear.
She: That’s right, noo-kyoo-ler.
I: Look, try this: Say “new.”
I: Say “klee”
I: Say “ar.”
I: Now, put them all together.
Try this experiment with any of the many people of your acquaintance who can’t say “nuclear.” Show them the word in the dictionary; say it for them; walk them through it, syllable by syllable; have them write it out on a piece of paper.
Then ask them to repeat it. You will think it impossible that persons having just gone through the steps of auditory, visual and tactile learning could bobble the word – but they will.
We know that English is a living language and as such will undergo changes in pronunciation and usage. Linguistic conservatives lament the fact, but it is inescapable. However, most changes in pronunciation exhibit some form of logic.
Professional linguists can explain for you the mutational march of English phonemes, or describe the process of metathesis, by which letters are transposed over time. My dictionary, for example, cites the transformation of the Old English “bridd” to our modern “bird.”
But I don’t think they can explain how a sound that isn’t there at all can intrude itself into a perfectly good word of unambiguous, phonetic spelling.
Not only is “kyoo” an intruder, it is an ugly one – inelegant to say the least.
It is incumbent upon all who revere the English language to defend such euphony as it might possess – word by word.
As noo-kyoo-ler is arguably the worst – or at least the most common – offense, we should defend it first, and apply corrective measures where we can.
Let us demand, to start with, that the broadcast networks require all panelists to wear not only the ubiquitous shirt-front microphone, but also a pair of electrodes unobtrusively taped to the back of the neck.
A carefully selected and linguistically pure technician would be assigned to apply a mild shock to anybody – moderator or panelist – who said noo-kyoo-ler. Repeat violations would lead to higher voltages.
It safely may be assumed that just about every commentator would prefer to have the audience hear him say “nuclear,” rather than “ngahh!”
Other suggestions will be gratefully received.