“What exactly am I being accused of…other than surviving a nuculer explosion?” The words came out of Indiana Jones’ mouth, just as if he hadn’t made a fatal error in pronunciation. I was delighted. Our old action hero had just ridden out an atomic test blast inside of a lead-lined refrigerator in a scene which even the Mythbusters would find implausible without the need to attempt a re-enaction. My delight comes from the other implausible sequence of interactions and conversations I have had today about just this word, “nuclear”. As we sat in our little sanctuary, the Lovely Lady and I looked at each other and laughed. And, just like that, it was fated that you should read a few of my thoughts about our language and maybe even society in general today. Try not to act too bored…
I awoke this morning, as I frequently do, to a quip from a generally amusing and always witty “word nerd” on my smartphone. He opined that there were numerous words in the English language which were difficult to pronounce, but that “nuclear” was not one of them. The word was “noo-klee-err”, not “noo-kyoo-lerr”. The responses from all the other word nerds, myself among them, were almost exclusively in support of his position and many pointed out an individual or two who misused the word continuously. You can imagine that the conversation turned ugly and political fairly quickly. The consensus was that anyone who used such an obvious mispronunciation could only be ignorant and foolish. The venom engendered by the simple statement of correct pronunciation was surprising. It should not have been. I, myself, am an avowed “stickler” for proper usage of the language, inclusive of grammar, pronunciation, and punctuation. My children will assure you that, as they matured, indiscretions during conversations were almost certain to give rise to correction, complete with sermons on the importance of the language in communication. Tonight, I repent in sackcloth and ashes.
It was a busy day, but not so busy that my mind didn’t have time to ruminate on the early morning lesson. In the dotage of my old age, I seem to be growing soft. I argued with myself about the need to keep the language pure, the profit of an undiluted vocabulary. I simply couldn’t escape the undeniable truth that we have never known such a language. That’s because there has never been such a language. All language is, of necessity, an evolving mode of communication, nothing more, nothing less. One is not ignorant because they use it differently than we do. To say that they are would be the same as insisting that someone who speaks a different language is stupid, simply because they don’t use the same words we’re used to hearing. We do, to be fair, need to make certain that our population is educated so that we can have a common language and be able to converse in a way which exchanges ideas and facts accurately. Any country which does not do so is inviting disaster and insuring a poor economy and the privation of its citizens. That being stated, it could be also be said that anything worth doing well is worth taking to an extreme. That seems to be the mantra for our society anyway. It seems that we have a habit of educating our populace to the point of blindness, focusing on what we think we know to be true, to the exclusion of common sense. Worse, depending on the region of the country in which we live (or identify with), we tend to label the folks from other areas as unintelligent or uneducated because they use a local vernacular or colloquialisms which don’t roll off our own tongues comfortably. It is becoming clear to me that nothing could be further from the truth; that it just makes sense to use the language which communicates best to the company with which we are conversing. This holds true in whichever part of the country or even the world we find ourselves.
I’m sure there are a few “Language Snobs” out there right now who are fuming. I’ve been in that position myself. I have told you that I am a stickler. I want words used and pronounced correctly, too. It’s just that we live in a world of shifting language. To deny it would be foolishness. It has always been so. To my dismay, a quick check of dictionaries tonight revealed to me that both pronunciations for “nuclear” are now acceptable. If you don’t believe it, you may check for yourself. What I am starting to understand, in my advancing years, is that many things are unassailable fact, but language is not one of them. When I was a child, if I held my hand over a candle, it burned my skin. As an aging man, if I hold my hand over a candle, it still burns my skin. Some things don’t change. Our language does.
Another one of those things which doesn’t change seems to be our need to disparage people who are different in some way than us or the company we keep. I remember a day when many white folks in this country hated Martin Luther King Jr. And, no, I don’t think hate is too strong a word to use. Today we celebrated the legal holiday dedicated to his memory. As I read the many short tributes to him in the social media today, I thought back to the day when he was speaking those words to crowds and to reporters. I won’t repeat the epithets I heard back then, but suffice it to say the people I knew weren’t inspired by his words. He represented a danger to the life they knew and had grown comfortable with. Much like Abraham Lincoln, in his fight against slavery a century before, had represented a danger to the life the citizens of this country knew, the future to our parents (and therefore to us) looked unsure and frightening in those days of the civil rights movement.
Change is unsettling. It is uncomfortable. It is also inevitable. It shouldn’t make us lash out, shouldn’t make us rude, shouldn’t make us attack. I don’t believe that a change in our language is the same as civil rights, but the principals seem to be related. Sometimes we have to give up comfort and ease to gain progress and to move toward the goal.
I’d like, at least, to be flexible enough to consider moving on up. I’m just glad it didn’t take a nuculer blast to get me motivated. You coming?
“I’ve decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
(Martin Luther King Jr.~American pastor and civil rights leader~1929-1968)
“A new command I give to you. Love one another.”