Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ


Back in 1971 I watched a B-grade horror film at the Windhoek Drive-in.

It was called The vulture, and one of the villains in it was described as a “nucular scientist”.

It was the first time I’d heard the word “nucular”, and assumed it was an order of magnitude more dangerous than “nuclear”. As fusion bombs are far more destructive than fission bombs, so nucular bombs would far more destructive than nuclear ones.

Thirty years later, comes the 21st century, and the President of the United States begins talking about “nucular weapons”. Has the science fiction of the 1970s become reality in the 21st century?

Well, why not?

We have these smart bombs that can hit the precise window of the Chinese Embassy that they are aimed at — why not nucular ones that behave like nuclear bombs on steroids?

But the plot thickens.

The language fundis at the alt.usage.english newsgroup have been discussing the use of the term “nucular” by the US vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.

Apparently she spoke about nucular weaponry being the whole being or essence of too many people and places on the planet.

Then someone else pointed out that “nucular” seemed to be a term that characterised the leaders of the US Republican Party. Perhaps it is a kind of shibboleth, by which the faithful can be distinguished. Members of other parties reveal themselves by not using the magic word.

But another one of those fundis dug deeper, into the Oxford English Dictionary, and this is what he found:

I’m not sure that it’s been brought up here before, although I suspect it has, but “nucular” appears to be a “real word” as well, although one that appears to have fallen out of use before “nuclear” became common. The sense is “of or relating to a nucule”, which is defined as

  1. Originally: each of the seeds in a nuculanium (obs.). Later: a small nut or nutlet; a section of a compound (usually hard) fruit; a nut borne in an involucre. Now rare.
  2. The female reproductive structure (oogonium) of a charophyte.

The OED cites this sense of “nucular” in 1876 and 1935, flagging it as “Bot. rare”. There are hits in Google books from 1855 through 1911.

I can’t remember anything about The vulture other than the fact that it featured a nucular scientist. I’ve forgotten the plot, the setting, and everything else. It was memorable only because it was where I first heard the word “nucular”. Perhaps the vulture in the film was a wooden vulture, or perhaps we are all living through a B-grade horror movie. .

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