Friday, October 14, 2005

Just Read: Going Nucular by Geoffrey Nunberg

I'm not a serious scholar of language, but I do have a shelf of two of what I think of as "word books." Many of them, I'm sure, are very bad scholarship, retelling language myths long discredited, but they're fun to read. This one is somewhat more serious - the author is a linguistics professor at Stanford, chairs the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, and does other very impressive word-related work. But Going Nucular is also quite fun to read, since it's essentially a collection of short essays, from a variety of sources.

Each essay tends to be about one particular word, or some other quite specific linguistic usage of interest. That tight focus is important, since these are very short essays, mostly four to five pages long. It makes each essay usefully compact and relatively complete, in its own small span, and Nunberg avoids the temptation, so common in language commentators, to deplore things and lapse into windy pontifications. The majority of the essays started life as broadcasts on NPR's Fresh Air show, with another sizable fraction coming from The New York Times's "Week in Review" page, and some from other newspapers. So they are often timely in the fashion of reportage, commenting on phrases or words that were very much in the news at the time. (This doesn't date the book, though, since Nunberg has a strong historical sense and is very good at putting current usages in an appropriate context.) Nunberg comes across as a man with great intellectual curiosity, the kind of guy who likes to burrow around to figure out what makes a phrase resonate and to do endless Google and Nexis searches to get raw data on usages.

Nunberg gets into political language quite a lot over the course of the book, but I found him pretty even-handed. He's talking about the language, how usages have changed, and what usages seem to him to be reasonable and which are wrong to his ear, rather than using language as a club to beat the other guy with. I did get the impression that he's personally towards the left end of the spectrum, but that was only a slight reading on my liberal detector (and so might be my own bias showing, or just my expectations from the NPR connection). In fact, his essays on political language are the most interesting parts of the book, which makes it a shame that they're all loaded up at the front. The sections at the end of the book aren't bad, or less well-reasoned, but they are about topics of lesser importance and don't lead to as much putting-the-book-down thought (on the part of this reader, at least). If I'd edited this book, I think I would have suggested that he break up the political sections, to lead off with one and close with either the "War Drums" or "Symbols" sections. You always want to finish off a book with a bang, if you can.

Because these essays were written during a Republican administration, they're more often talking about right-wing political speech, which may annoy some thin-skinned types who think their side can do no wrong. But, again, he's really not a prescriptivist to begin with, so he's not labeling any words or usages as wrong, but instead working through the implications and ideas behind popular phrases, and trying to figure out why certain locutions are suddenly being used a lot more often then they used to be.

Before I'm done, let me quote a bit, from an essay on the word "solutions:"
And then there's Bright Horizons Family Solutions, an outfit that manages corporate daycare centers, whose portfolio presumably includes story-hour solutions and snack solutions, not to mention nap solutions for clients with crankiness issues.
Nunberg is a sly and engaging writer as well as a sharp-eyed observer of the English language, and reading this book will make you think a bit about the words you use and the words you hear. I'd recommend it to anyone with a professional or serious amateur connection with words, and especially those interested in the political uses of language in the USA.

1 comment:

Martin Wisse said...

So I'm not the only one who has "book put down thoughts" then!

Interesting book; think I'll keep an eye out for it.

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