cover image Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times

Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times

Geoffrey Nunberg. PublicAffairs, $18.95 (298pp) ISBN 978-1-58648-234-3

Stanford linguistics professor Nunberg suggests using language as a""jumping-off point"" to learn more about Americans' evolving values and attitudes in this feisty, humorous collection of essays gleaned from his NPR and newspaper commentaries. Nunberg cracks the codes embedded in many familiar terms used in media, business, technology and politics to reveal unexpected insights about our fractious society. Marching straight into the culture wars, he observes that the""old-fashioned"" racial term""Caucasian"" remains an acceptable euphemism for white, unlike the similarly dated racial categories,""Negroid"" and""Mongoloid.""""Caucasian,"" he concludes,""is a cultural category in racial drag."" He deconstructs the notion of""class warfare"" and explores how Americans' comfort in using the prefix""middle"" with""class""--but not""upper"" or""working""--speaks volumes about contemporary ideas on wealth, privilege and social mobility. The wordsmith also blows the whistle on the rhetorical gymnastics surrounding the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the war on terror. American foreign policy should not hinge on stamping unfriendly governments with absolute yet conveniently vague epithets like""evil"" when a tag like""rogue states"" works with fewer indignant howls, he says. As Nunberg's title suggests, pronunciation can also be political: President Bush's much-lampooned utterance""nucular"" could be either a nod to""Pentagon wise guys"" or a sly""faux-bubba"" gimmick to curry favor with some voters. While liberals don't escape criticism, Nunberg unleashes his well-chosen barbs from a left-of-center perch. Conservatives, especially pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan, receive special scrutiny for what Nunberg says are the simplistic linguistic devices they use to appeal to their audiences. Nunberg avoids hasty conjectures, and the provocative clues scattered across these pages should alert readers to the""linguistic deceptions"" in their midst.