Going Nucular: Language, Politics, & Culture in Confrontational Times - Geoffrey Nunberg

I've heard a few of Geoffrey Nunberg's pieces (including the title piece, "Going Nucular") on NPR's Fresh Air program, and I've usually enjoyed them, so I decided to check out his book. It's basically a collection of pieces from Fresh Air, The New York Times, and other places. Because of this, they're mostly fairly short and sound like something you'd hear in a five-minute radio spot, down to the witty parting shot for each piece. It also means that, though you can read through it fairly quickly (as I did, in order to finish it before the library due date), it's probably best to read a little at a time so you can enjoy it more.

Nunberg has a keen ear for language, but the book isn't for, as he says, "word-buffs who sprinkle their conversation with curious etymologies and enjoy pointing out the grammatical errors on restaurant menus." Though if you are one of those people (I'll admit to it myself), you'd still get a kick out of this book. What it's really about is using language and linguistic curiosities as a starting point for discussions about our culture. For example, what are we to make of the fact that most teenagers use "like" liberally in their conversation, but when interviewed about recent school shootings, they left it out? Why has the verb "roil" suddenly become more common in newspapers?

The book covers a wide range of topics, from politics to technology to business to the media. While I don't personally notice when a particular word or phrase becomes popular, or is used particularly by one side of the political spectrum, I find that Nunberg's ability to investigate the roots of the issue are insightful. There is one fault, though: Nunberg's own political leanings are to the left, and many of his pieces pick at the language use of conservatives. He generally does include at least one example of a liberal doing the same thing, but you get the feeling that it's only a half-hearted acknowledgement. Rarely does he talk about something that the left does more than the right—and regardless of which way you lean, I think it would be useful to know if you've inadvertently picked up a habit.

But despite this one-sidedness, it's still an excellent book and offers some good food for thought.

Fed to jonathan's brain | August 31, 2004