Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday 30 May 2023

Nuclear, nucular or just unclear?

Three characters in the thriller I watched last night were discussing a mission: the first described how they would approach the ‘nucular’ missiles and the second answered with a point about their ‘nuclear’ warheads, while the third simply talked about the ‘nukes’ (which was a bit of a cop-out if you ask me).

I might not have noticed had I not been listening to BBC sounds last week and happened upon a drama in which the heroine - a doctor - repeatedly used the pronunciation ‘nuculus’ when referring to the nucleus accumbens in the brain (as ‘the Nucleus Accumbens’ was the title and theme of the episode, she did this quite a lot). This pronunciation wasn't, as it turns out, simply put on for the role; astonishingly - for purists at least - the same actress was subsequently chosen to narrate a docu-drama about the nuclear - ‘nucular’ - disaster at Fukushima.

In both cases, I found myself wondering what happened behind the scenes. Each production presumably has scriptwriters, editors and directors, all of whom might surely be expected to point out such a glaring mispronunciation. Were they too much in awe of the actors to criticise, I wonder, or did they fear it might be seen as some kind of discrimination? Or maybe, as I have found in the classroom, an habitual employer of ‘nucular’ is unwilling or unable to change however many times you ask.

Experience suggests that it is more common in people with dyslexia, which is understandable, but one would expect some outside input if they persist in using it in a professional context. Some very unexpected people do it; I’ve encountered it from highly intelligent A level Physics candidates (anecdotal evidence even implicates Marcus de Sautoy, occasional broadcaster and Oxford Simonyi Professor for the Public Advancement of Science) and I have heard it used several times in TV documentary programmes over the past few years including - again surprisingly - one on submarines and another on the Cold War.

There are times when it starts to feel like a form of gaslighting, or possibly one of the Asch conformity experiments; I know that my version is the correct one, but so after so many repetitions of the other, I can feel myself starting to question it. The dictionaries are reassuringly unanimous, so it isn’t a valid alternative (in any case, given the spelling, it would be hard to see any justification for that hypothesis); how, then, does it find its way into so many broadcasts?

One explanation might be that the production team themselves pronounce it that way - in which case the rot has set in deeper than I thought - or have heard it mispronounced so often that they don’t notice it; in any case, I can’t dismiss the possibility that I am in a pedantic minority and nobody else is bothered by the inaccuracy. According to some sources, George W Bush pronounced it correctly until he began his White House campaign, at which point he adopted ‘nucular’ to sound more folksy and approachable (although I just found it terrifying that he said it like that and they still put him in charge of the things).

I suppose there, is, at least, an upside to all of this; if, back in the days of ‘Protect and Survive’, someone had told me that, forty years later, I’d be bothered by the way people pronounce ‘nuclear weapons’ rather than dealing with their aftermath, I’d probably have been profoundly grateful for such a trivial preoccupation.


  1. Homer tells everyone how to pronounce it incorrectly.


    Some commenters on the video say it would have been be funnier if Homer had been the one to pronounce it correctly. Others disagree.

    1. I’m clearly a little out of touch with things at present; my initial response to your first sentence was, “Funny; I don’t recall that bit of the Iliad...”

      Having watched the video - thank you for the link! - it seems even more surprising that a mispronunciation which can be mocked in this way is still so widespread in broadcasting.

  2. The ones that really get on my nerves are those who use loose instead of lose. Also those who devalue their comments by using txtspk, especially "u" instead of you. Not forgetting "prolly" instead of probably and "fed up of" instead of fed up with.

    1. See also ‘bored of’ and - a particular bugbear of mine - ‘watching on’, which I have even heard recently on BBC news.

    2. To avoid being accused of discrimination, I know ‘watching on’ exists as Irish usage (possibly as a literal translation), in the same way as, for example, ‘a scissors’ as opposed to ‘a pair of scissors’; it just seems wrong for anyone else to do it.


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