Synopses & Reviews
The words that echo through Geoffrey Nunberg's brilliant new journey across the landscape of American language evoke exactly the tenor of our times. Nunberg has a wonderful ear for the new, the comic and the absurd. He pronounces that: " 'Blog' is a syllable whose time has come," and that "You don't get to be a verb unless you're doing something right," with which he launches into the effect of Google on our collective consciousness. Nunberg hears the shifting use of "Gallic" as we suddenly find ourselves in bitter opposition to the French; perhaps only Nunberg could compare America the Beautiful with a Syrian national anthem that contains the line "A land resplendent with brilliant suns...almost like a sky centipede." At the heart of the entertainment and linguistic slapstick that Nunberg delights in are the core concerns that have occupied American minds. "Going Nucular," the title piece, is more than a bit of fun at the President's expense. Nunberg's analysis is as succinct a summary of the questions that hover over the administration's strategy as any political insider's. It exemplifies the message of the book: that in the smallest ticks and cues of language the most important issue and thoughts of our times can be heard and understood. If you know how to listen for them. Nunberg has dazzling receptors, perfect acoustics and a deftly elegant style to relay his wit and wisdom. I don't think of myself as a word-lover. I've always thought that words are most interesting for what they tell us about other things and in particular, the things they allow us to leave unsaid. Listen to them attentively and you'll hear the traces of ideas and attitudes that are operating just below thesurface of consciousness, which can be hard to get at by any other means. Why do so many defense specialists who know perfectly well how nuclear is spelled insist on pronouncing the word as "nucular"--and why has the current President Bush chosen to say it that way, when he grew up hearing it said correctly by his father? Why has the word Caucasian become much more common over the past half century, even as other outmoded racial classifications like Mongoloid and Negroid were disappearing from the American vocabulary? What is it about the little word "like" that so annoys people when they hear it in adolescent's mouths, and why do the adolescents use it so much more judiciously than their parents realize? Why in the world would writers on the right use "and" differently from writers on the left? A great linguist once said that every word has its story. These essays are the records of a kind of game I've played with myself over the years, trying to ferret out those stories and uncover the secret lessons that language can teach us about ourselves.
"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." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
A great linguist once said that every word has a story. Nunberg ferrets out those stories and uncovers the secret lessons that language can teach us about ourselves.
A witty and artful investigative essay on how language reflects the times and the mindset of the world we live in.