Many observers of the vice-presidential debate between Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin noticed that Palin shares President George W. Bush’s mispronunciation of “nuclear” as “new-kyoo-lurr.” Why would an otherwise intelligent person mistake the correct way to say a word that isn’t any more difficult than “likelier”?
In a radio commentary from 2002, language expert Prof. Geoffrey Nunberg explained that in Bush’s case, the mispronunciation may be deliberate, a sort of modern shibboleth — a way to distinguish “us” from “them.” And in such cases, it’s used only for nuclear weapons. Could Sarah Palin be using “nucular” the same way?
In the mouths of those people, “nucular” is a choice, not an inadvertent mistake — a thinko, not a typo. I’m not sure exactly what they have in mind by it. Maybe it appeals to them to refer to the weapons in what seems like a folksy and familiar way, or maybe it’s a question of asserting their authority — as if to say, “We’re the ones with our fingers on the button, and we’ll pronounce the word however we damn well please.”