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"Nucular" is a commonly used mispronunciation of the word "nuclear". While no dictionaries list this particular pronunciation as correct, several make mention of it because of its increased usage.
Notes in dictionaries
Merriam-Webster Dictionary receives enough questions about their mention of this mispronunciation in the dictionary that it is one of two mispronunciations which receive particular mention in their FAQ:
Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in \-kyə-lər\ have been found in widespread use among educated speakers, including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, United States cabinet members, and at least two United States presidents and one vice president. While most common in the United States, these pronunciations have also been heard from British and Canadian speakers.
The pronunciation (noo'kyə-lər), which is generally considered incorrect, is an example of how a familiar phonological pattern can influence an unfamiliar one … [since] much more common is the similar sequence (-kyə-lər), which occurs in words like particular, circular, spectacular, and in many scientific words like molecular, ocular, and vascular.
The colloquial pronunciation British /ˈnjuːkjʊlə/, U.S. /ˈn(j)ukjələr/ (frequently rendered in written form as nucular[...]) has been criticized in usage guides since at least the mid 20th century [...] although it is now commonly given as a variant in modern dictionaries.
The Oxford English Dictionary's entry for nucular, representing the colloquial pronunciation, dates the first published appearance of the word to 1943.
In his 1999 book The Big Book Of Beastly Mispronunciations, logophile Charles Harrington Elster noted that the vast majority of those he spoke with during the writing of his book as well as 99 percent of the 1985 usage panel of Morris & Morris' Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage specifically condemned the use of the word and characterized it as a mispronunciation. Elster's own view on the matter derives from the root of the word: "nucleus". Arguing by analogy, Elster suggests that "Molecular comes from molecule, and particular comes from particle, but there is no nucule to support nucular."
U.S. presidents who have used this pronunciation include Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush as well as U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale. In his 2005 book, Going Nucular, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg suggests that the reasons underlying the differing pronunciations of this word may be different from president to president. Whereas Eisenhower's pronunciation most likely arose from his lack of familiarity with the word (having first learned it in mid-life), Bush's usage may represent a calculated effort to appeal to populist sentiment, though this theory is rejected by linguist Steven Pinker. This analysis is repeated in the second edition of Charles Harrington Elster's The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations.
Oxford Professor Marcus du Sautoy was heard to use it in a BBC documentary. The actor and narrator Orson Welles said "nucular" while speaking at the 1982 "No Nukes" rally in New York City's Central Park.
Edward Teller, "father" of the American hydrogen bomb, supposedly used this particular pronunciation, and this usage is a limited tradition within the American nuclear research establishment. In a 1965 interview with Teller on the ill-fated Project Plowshare, Teller can be heard pronouncing the word correctly.
In popular culture
In Woody Allen's 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Mia Farrow's character says she could never fall for any man who says "nucular". The pronunciation was satirized in the 1996 science fiction film Mars Attacks!. Later, the pronunciation was utilized earnestly by the titular character in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull after Indiana survives an atomic bomb test by crawling inside a lead-lined refrigerator. This pronunciation was also used in the 2012 animated family film Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted.
Homer Simpson (a nuclear power plant employee) of the popular American animated TV series The Simpsons and Peter Griffin of the animated comedy series Family Guy both pronounce nuclear this way (during the episode "Da Boom", Peter 'corrects' Lois Griffin's correct pronunciation of the word).
Steven Pinker has proposed a phonotactic explanation for the conversion of nuclear to nucular: the unusual and disfavored sequence [kli.ər] is gradually transformed to a more acceptable configuration via metathesis. However, Arnold Zwicky notes that [kli.ər] presents no difficulty for English speakers in words such as pricklier. He also regards the proposition of metathesis as unnecessary. Zwicky suggests a morphological origin, combining the slang nuke with the common sequence -cular (molecular, particular, etc.). Supporting Zwicky's hypothesis, Geoffrey Nunberg quotes a government weapons specialist: "Oh, I only say 'nucular' when I'm talking about nukes." Nunberg argues that this pronunciation by weapons specialists and by politicians such as Bush – who are aware of the correct pronunciation – may be a "deliberate choice". He suggests that the reasons for this choice are to "assert authority" or to sound folksy.