When speaking about nuclear weapons, George W. Bush invariably pronounces the word “nucular.” Is this an acceptable pronunciation?
Not really. Changing “nu-clee-ar” into “nu-cu-lar” is an example of what linguists call metathesis, which is the switching of two adjacent sounds. (Think of it this way: “nook le yer” becomes “nook ye ler.”) This switching is common in English pronunciation; you might pronounce “iron” as “eye yern” rather than “eye ron.” Why do people do it? One reason, offered in a usage note in the American Heritage Dictionary, is that the “ular” ending is extremely common in English, and much more common than “lear.” Consider particular, circular, spectacular, and many science-related words like molecular, ocular, muscular.
Bush isn’t the only American president to lose the “nucular” war. In his “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine in May 2001, William Safire lamented that, besides Bush, at least three other presidents—Eisenhower, Carter, and Clinton—have mangled the word.
In fact, Bush’s usage is so common that it appears in at least one dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s, by far the most liberal dictionary, includes the pronunciation, though with a note identifying it as “a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.” A 1961 Merriam-Webster’seditionwas the first to include “nucular”; the editors received so many indignant letters that they added a usage note in the 1983 version, pointing out its “widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, U.S. cabinet members, and at least one U.S. president and one vice president.” They even noted its prominence among “British and Canadian speakers.”
These days, Merriam-Webster’s sends every reader who fusses about “nucular” a defensive, 400-word response letter. Click here to read it.
Explainer thanks Joseph Pickett, editor of the American Heritage Dictionary; Joshua Guenter, pronunciation editor at Merriam-Webster; Steven Pinker of MIT; and Bryan A. Garner, author of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.