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Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times

By Geoffrey Nunberg
PublicAffairs (hardcover, $22.95, 298 pp.)

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Reviewer: AL HOFF

 

Summer reading is by definition light and enjoyable, but that doesn't preclude processing a few deeper thoughts. And in the same summer that saw the runaway success of a book about misplaced punctuation (Eats, Shoots & Leaves), the public will surely enjoy an entertaining poke or two through the recent use and misuse of words in our public sphere.

 

Geoffrey Nunberg's Going Nucular is not a book about how we mangle what we mean to say through blissful ignorance; it's an examination of how certain words are intentionally chosen to obscure lies or truths, and how language is manipulated and shifted, however unthinkingly, for larger purposes.

 

Nunberg knows words: He's a professor of linguistics at Stanford University, as well as a longtime contributor of essays about language to NPR's Fresh Air and to several popular newspapers. Going Nucular -- which takes its title from the "folksy" mispronunciation of "nuclear" -- is a collection of 66 of Nunberg's previously aired or published works, each in an easy-to-digest, four-to-six-page bite. His dissections are presented in sub-sections such as Culture at Large and Business Cycles, but the two sections that will feel the most immediate are War Drums and Politics as Usual.

 

In "We'll Always Have Kirkuk," Nunberg parses out what we're calling those troublesome "others" in Iraq. In the one week that I took note, the non-specific individuals, group or groups in Iraq whose crimes run the gamut from hollering abuse at American soldiers to beheading civilians and blowing up infrastructure were variously referred to on news programs and by politicians and pundits, without qualification, as: thugs, rebels, insurgents, militia, terrorists, jihadists, Islamic extremists and the quite inelegant "Baathist leftovers."

 

Nunberg writes: "Everyone has been struggling to find the right term for the enemy in Iraq. ... The variation signals a deeper problem in interpreting the story. The media may be making a valiant effort to cover the good news, but no one is sure what story line to wrap around the bad." Lately, "insurgents" appears to be the preferred appellation, but Nunberg also cautions: "Words [such as rebels and insurgents] have awkward heroic resonances of their own: They bring to mind the good guys in The Empire Strikes Back."

 

Another fascinating essay traces the history of naming military campaigns. During World War II, campaigns were purposefully assigned ambiguous names -- Avalanche, Overlord -- so as not to reveal their intent. Since then, the practice of giving unclassified operations nicknames for public-relations purposes ranges from the unintentionally hilarious (the 1983 rescue of a few medical students from tiny Grenada was called "Operation Urgent Fury") to the current use of such designations as branding tools. Hence, today's "Operation Enduring Freedom" and "Operation Liberty Shield" -- names so strenuously meaningful that, ironically, they have almost looped back to meaninglessness.

 

Those less obsessed with political language will find entertainment in Nunberg's riffs on the national anthem, newscasters' bizarre use of the present participle ("Grammar making news tonight ...") and updates on corporate "visions" and "solutions."

 

It may seem like much ado about nothing, fretting about words changing their meaning, but words do matter in how we perceive our world. One only need recall the daily juggernaut of advertising to know words are effective. Daily life and media blather may be comprised of more thoughtlessly applied words than is sweated-over ad copy, but consider the upcoming election, which may well turn on our subjective definitions of "security" and "patriotism" in a country now severely rechristened "the homeland."

 

For the armchair linguist playing at home, this book will prep the mind for what will surely be a lively, fertile summer. There's that whatever-it-is-now (formerly an "occupation") in Iraq -- an extraordinarily fluid venue for new uses of language; and the upcoming political conventions, each loaded with frantically test-marketed "idea-words" begging for your support. (A quick peek at partisan Web sites shows that both sides can't use the word "strength" and its various derivatives nearly enough.)

 

As such an amateur scholar myself, I occasionally found the abbreviated nature of Nunberg's pieces reminiscent of tapas, more like appetizers when I could easily have enjoyed a full meal. Just when a discussion started to get interesting, it stopped. But in that regard, Going Nucular is a perfect book for the beach or back porch, when the sun is high and the idling but still engaged mind desires to only process small, but provocative, nuggets.

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