Q: After more than seven years of hearing our President mangle the word “nuclear,” have Americans finally accepted “NOO-kya-lur” as standard English?
A: President Bush is often blamed for the ubiquity of “NOO-kya-lur,” but this questionable pronunciation of “nuclear” was around long before he came on the scene.
And he’s far from the only US President to take liberties with this word. At least three others – Eisenhower, Carter, and Clinton – were creative in pronouncing “nuclear.”
Although the variant pronunciation is very widespread, it’s still frowned upon by many. The usual pronunciation is still “NOO-klee-ur.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says the variant version is “generally considered incorrect” and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) sees it as a variant that occurs in educated speech but that is “disapproved of by many.”
A usage note in American Heritage suggests that the popularity of “NOO-kya-lur” may be an example of how a familiar pronunciation pattern can influence a less familiar one.
The last two syllables of the usual pronunciation (“NOO-klee-ur”) are relatively rare in English, American Heritage says, while the last two syllables of the deviant version resemble the endings of such common words as “particular,” “circular,” “spectacular,” and “molecular.”
But some linguists have raised doubts about this theory, pointing out that English speakers don’t seem to have trouble pronouncing “likelier,” “sicklier,” and other words with “klee-ur” endings.
[Note: A later post on this subject was published on March 19, 2013.]
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