Unkind commentators are having a lot of fun with the prime minister's trademark inability to properly pronounce the word "nuclear".
For most of us in the English-speaking world the word is pronounced as "gnu-klee-ah" (forgive me for using gnu here rather than noo but I like the idea of African animals grazing in our language). The prime minister emits the word as "gnu-queue-lah" as if it is spelled nucular.
He has suddenly had to use the word often as he announces and rejoices over his government's decision to arm our nation to the teeth with nuclear-powered submarines.
Those scoffing at his mispronunciation of the word accuse it is a further proof his mind is not the sharpest of tools and in this case it is a proof when he is talking about nuclear matters he doesn't know what he is gibbering about.
Usually I am lightning-quick to join those who poke fun at this prime minister. What's more, in my own life, I have a past history of being a tight-corseted, pedantry-imprisoned stickler for correctness in everything to do with uses of our language. But now, grown up, I forgive the prime minister this mistake and say it is no proof (in itself) of his mind being a blunt object.
Back to prime ministers and to English as a tool in just a moment.
First, though, and while on the subject of our submarines, I am looking forward to the Morrison government (famous for its commitment to community consultation) inviting all Australians to suggest names for each of the eight behemoths. As well as being the right thing to do (for all taxpayers will be contributing to the estimated $100 billion cost of the subs) it will enable us to make the otherwise forbidding brutes a little more endearing.
My suggestions include that each of the subs might be given the name of a famous Australian pacifist or peace activist.
So for example one might be HMAS Vida Goldstein (there is already a federal electorate named after the famous peace activist and suffragist).
Although there is some lefty, anti-war mischief in my suggestion it is also true (isn't it?) that frightening weapons like these are meant to be so-called deterrents of war. In which case perhaps (only perhaps) late anti-war activists like Vida Goldstein (looking on from Heaven) and like living Dr Helen Caldicott might think it appropriate to have warships named after them.
To think bigger, to give the eight vessels' names more global heft and resonance, they might be given the names of international historical household-name giants of anti-war activism. Here I am indebted to Wikipedia's encyclopaedic lists of activists' names, enabling us to imagine our eight submarines as, say, HMASs Mahatma Gandhi, Joan Baez, Bertrand Russell, Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Leo Tolstoy, Pope Benedict XV (he advocated peace throughout WWI; opposed aerial warfare; promoted humanitarian initiatives to protect children, prisoners of war, the wounded and missing persons), Albert Schweitzer and the persecuted Julian Assange one of only four people to be recognised with the Gold medal for Peace with Justice.
But back to our original theme, to the prime minister's inventive pronunciation of a word.
To explain my readiness to forgive him his pronunciations of words (while meanwhile there is so much, including his unchristian torment of Julian Assange, one can never forgive him for) I testify what has happened for me has been the growing realisation that extreme pedantry in these things is a sign of the mind's fossilisation.
English usage pedants are invariably mature-aged, grey pedants, of the same demographic block as the famous grey nomads). Then, too, there has been my delighted acceptance of what a lithe, flexible, made-of-Play-Doh, ever-changing wonder our language is. Language pedants, displaying a kind of intellectual arthritis, think of English language itself as something bound by whalebone-corset-stiff, creaking, osteoinflexible rules.
Perhaps they, the grey and intellectually arthritic, subconsciously envy the English language its happy elasticity, its rubbery gymnasticity (a sweet rubberiness demonstrated, right here and now by my own spontaneous invention of useful-to-what-I-am arguing words like "osteoinflexible" and "gymnasticity").
And one little test of whether a quaint pronunciation of a word is a proof of the speaker's pig-ignorance is to notice how, today, almost no Australians however learned, accomplished, eminent and professorial can properly pronounce the words "vulnerable" and "particularly".
Even some of our most towering epidemiologists and health professionals, surely some of the sharpest tools in our national shed, give these words a harmless mangle when they, the speakers, are on the news.
There is something about polysyllabic words that the modern Australian mind and tongue (however finely tuned and honed by education) find too dauntingly demanding. These and other words get bonsaied, stripped of some of their syllables, by their speakers so as to make them, the words, more manageable. Today's Australians shy at long words, like horses shying at jumps they can't clear. So "vulnerable" is shrunk in pronunciation to "vunnerable" (an interesting new word in its own right, suggesting the plight of being vulnerable by virtue of being old, frail and venerable). So "particularly" is shrivelled (even and especially by polysyllability-challenged ABC newsreaders) to "partickly", amusingly suggestive of ticklishness.
For this agile-tongued columnist it is a little disappointing to hear long words bonsaied (it robs the words of some of their music) but to paraphrase Shakespeare, a particularly useful word (like nuclear) by any other pronunciation is still particularly useful in the conversation of mankind.
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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