Q: The more I learn about English, the more I find myself wondering whether something is an error or just an acceptable variant. Now for my question: Is it acceptable to pronounce “nuclear” as NOO-kya-lur instead of NOO-klee-ur?
A: We discussed this subject several years ago on our blog when a reader complained about President George W. Bush’s pronunciation of the word.
As we wrote back in 2008, Bush was far from the only US president to take liberties with “nuclear.” At least three others—Eisenhower, Carter, and Clinton—did so too.
Although the NOO-kya-lur pronunciation is very widespread, we said in that posting, it’s frowned on by many.
We wrote then that both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) noted the objections.
We’ve now checked a newer edition of American Heritage and a newer printing of Merriam-Webster’s, but not much has changed.
A usage note in the new fifth edition of American Heritage says the NOO-kya-lur pronunciation “is generally considered incorrect” and is “an example of how a familiar phonological pattern can influence an unfamiliar one.”
AH adds that the “usual pronunciation of the final two syllables” is klee-ur, “but this sequence of sounds is rare in English.”
The usage note says the kya-lur sequence is “much more common” and “occurs in words like particular, circular, spectacular, and in many scientific words like molecular, ocular, and vascular.”
It says the “NOO-kya-lur” pronunciation “is often heard in high places” and “is not uncommon in the military in association with nuclear weaponry.”
Despite “the prominence of these speakers,” American Heritage concludes, the NOO-kya-lur pronunciation “was considered acceptable to only 10 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2004 survey.”
A usage note from the latest printing of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate says the NOO-kya-lur pronunciation is “disapproved of by many.”
But Merriam-Webster’s notes that the pronunciation is “in widespread use among educated speakers,” including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, cabinet members, and presidents.
The dictionary adds that the NOO-kya-lur pronunciation has “also been heard from British and Canadian speakers.”
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage makes many of the same points and suggests that people use the variant kya-lur ending because they have trouble pronouncing “nuclear” with klee-ur at the end.
The usage guide adds that “there is no other common word in English” with a klee-ur ending. (The italics are in the entry.)
We take issue with this last point. At least two common English words, “likelier” and “sicklier,” have that ending. And English speakers don’t seem to have problems pronouncing them.
Check out our books about the English language