Geoffrey Nunberg’s Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times sounds like the title of a political satire. There are politics under discussion, but only in a background way. To be sure, Going Nucular uses the language of politics, but only to analyze it. Nunberg isn’t interested in talking politics, but in how we talk when talking about politics-- or culture, or fashion, or any of the infinity of other subjects language must describe.
Nunberg offers some moments of startling clarity. “Like, Wow!” and “Ain’t Misbehavin” define and acknowledge the necessary place of a few oft-maligned words. “Caucasian Talk Circles” manages to put a source of racial tension at a rational distance. “I Seeing the News Today, Oh Boy” and “Roil Pain” both make fun of the linguistic excesses of journalism.
Nunberg puts less emphasis on proving conclusions than making observations, with a written voice more conversational than humorous. Even in “Roil Pain” and “I Seeing The News Today, Oh Boy,” the funniest passages are quotes from other writers. Most of the essays, like “Adverbially Yours,” don’t serve to clarify any great linguistic or political debate. Even when those debates are the center of the piece, as when the use of appeasement and compromise are examined in “Appease Porridge Hot” and “Meetings of the Minds,” the focus stays on the concepts behind the words rather than the debate using them. In more abstract essays, it is sometimes hard to even locate the focus the essay. But even at his least conclusive, Nunberg’s writing reflects his fascination with the English language. That fascination has paid off in his writing. Even in his weakest essays, Nunberg’s language is a treat to read.