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.