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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Don't have a meltdown

The indignation aroused by the threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan is as nothing compared to the outrage caused by people using the pronunciation “nucular”.

This pronunciation for “nuclear” may drive of you nuts, which reaction is at least etymologically consistent, for “nucleus” comes from the nuc- form of the Latin word nux (nut) plus the diminutive ending -leus. Latin had another word for “little nut”, nucula, which was borrowed into English as a botanical term not long after “nucleus”. The adjective derived from it was indeed “nucular”. However, it is unlikely that confusion of these two related words is at the root of this issue.

Those of you for whom the "nucular" pronunciation is a shibboleth that distinguishes the illiterate from the blessed will no doubt have a meltdown of your own when you learn that the Oxford English Dictionary now has an entry for "nucular" in the "nuclear" sense. I was pretty surprised myself that they gave it an entry, but the OED doesn't do things lightly (and certainly not in haste), and has the following note: "The colloquial pronunciation .... rendered in written form as nucular... has been criticized in usage guides since at least the mid 20th cent., although it is now commonly given as a variant in modern dictionaries."

That last part is true at least of the ardently descriptivist Merriam-Webster dictionaries, which give the disputed pronunciation with the following comment: "Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in \-kyə-lər\ have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, United States cabinet members, and at least two United States presidents and one vice president.” Indeed, many blame President Eisenhower for this pronunciation, but according to the OED he was not the first to use it.

There is a phonological reason for this development: there are no common two-syllable words in English ending in \klee-ər\ (unless you happen to use the word "cochlear" a lot!). But there are many ending in \-kyə-lər\: particular, spectacular, ocular, etc. Often alternate pronunciations arise by analogy with more common strings of sounds.

Likewise, rearranging the order of pronunciation of the vowels and consonants in a word is not uncommon in the history of English. Indeed, that is why we have "third" and "thirteen" instead of the original and more logical "thrid" and "thriteen" ("three" originally having been written "thri"). No doubt many in Tudor times were getting their doublets and hose in a twist over ignorant people mispronouncing "thrid".

Nonetheless, I do not recommend adopting “nucular” as your pronunciation, as it is so very stigmatized. I cannot tell how common it really is; when we did a survey on the question for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, none of our correspondents admitted using it. But try not to go nuclear if you hear it; there are more important things to get upset about. Those pesky people who insist on saying “thirteen” instead of “threeteen”, for instance.


  1. Oh, I "go nuclear" whenever I hear /ekcetera/ :)

  2. If nucular is in the OED, does that mean DUBYA ain't no dumbass no more?


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.