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There was the following sentence in the article of Time magazine (November 21) titled, “Senate Democrats go ‘Nuclear’ to curb the filibuster”:

“During the Bush Administration, Republicans threatened to go nuclear when Democrats held up judicial appointments. But use of the filibuster has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels during the Obama Administration, as Republicans harnessed the procedural tactic to stop the President’s agenda.

None of Cambridge, Oxford and Merriam-Webster English Dictionary carries the words, “go nuclear” as an idiom.

Google Ngram shows usage of this word, which was observed early back in late 1930s, much earlier than the drop of atomic bombs in Hiroshima / Nagasaki in August, 1945, and dropping sharply (to 0.0000029% level in 2008) after peaking around 1980 (0.0000060%level).

Though the online slang dictionary defines it as ‘become enraged,’ it doesn’t seem to fit the context of the above quote - Republicans threatened to go nuclear when Democrats held up judicial appointments.

What does “go nuclear” mean, and what is the origin of the word?

Can I say “My boss went nuclear when I told him in face that our business goal is unrealistic and unattainable”?

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  • I don't see it as an idiom. At least I can think of "go green" and "think green", both have similar structure to "go nuclear". Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 2:05
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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_option
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 2:16
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    Thanks folks. On top of your valuable feedback, I found the following input corresponding to my post in the article by Hendrik Hertzerg in New Yorker (Nov 21 issue) – “The Senate’s Nuclear (Power) Option,” which reads: For the past ten years, ever since then Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, coined the term, any attempt to reform the filibuster—that is, limit or abolish it—has been called, for short, the “nuclear option.” On Thursday, it finally happened. That ability, when you think about it, was the real nuclear option. Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 9:27
  • Cont:What happened today isn’t Hiroshima; it’s arms control. The aptness of the metaphor, though, isn’t about bombs. It’s about energy. -- It seems the question was resolved. Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 9:28

2 Answers 2

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In general usage, to "go nuclear" is to use a nuclear option, either literally (to engage in nuclear warfare) or more often, figuratively; to engage in an option with serious consequences so bad that they would normally be ignored. Most often acting with extreme aggression to the point of doing something you can't back down from afterwards.

In the case of the US Senate, they are alluding to "the nuclear option", the potential for the current majority to change its current need for a super-majority of 60% to end a bill's debate to a requirement for a simple majority of 51% (strictly anything over 50%, but with the current 100-seat house, that means 51). The metaphor with nuclear warfare is the possibilities of a retaliation that backfires on the majority party in damaging what bi-partisan co-operation there is.

It's a pretty stupid name for the possible procedure, but stupid names are common in politics, especially 21st century US politics.

Because there is a general idiom of "going nuclear" and also a specific phrase "nuclear option", the press love to use both phrases.

You could indeed say that your boss "went nuclear", but it would be a different use to that you are quoting. It would also only really be called for if he acted in a particular rage. Your boss complaining about you being late is not going nuclear, or even your boss shouting at you. Your boss punching you, verbally abusing your colleagues and then phoning his boss and telling him or her to "stick his job up his regularly-serviced rectum", before throwing a computer out the window, would be going nuclear.

Again though, this is a different use of "going nuclear", though the reason the press like it is precisely because it says one while alluding to the other.

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  • There is an additional nuance linking the literal and figurative uses of "going nuclear" and "nuclear option": retaliation. Just as the prospect of retaliatory nuclear strikes, summarized as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), marked the U.S.-Soviet standoff during the Cold War, the prospect of the minority party regaining the majority and further reducing the power of the other party long kept the rules for filibuster intact. If filibuster had been used as selectively in the past decade or two as it had been for many decades before, the nuclear option would not have been exercised last week. Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 23:21
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Go nuclear refers to the "nuclear option," first attributed in the Washington Post:

Senate Republicans have one weapon -- what Majority Leader Bill Frist and his colleagues have called the "nuclear option," because it would blow up the current rules requiring a 60-vote “supermajority” to end a filibuster. [Washington Post, 28 Nov 2004]

To go nuclear means to exercise the "nuclear option" and change the rules to end a filibuster.

If go nuclear ("blow things up") wasn't originally an idiom, it arguably has become one in the proper context -- although go nuclear ("develop nuclear weapons" or "develop nuclear power") is still too often used literally for me to be comfortable with saying it's an idiom in general use.

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    Agree everything except that last sentence. Maybe it's not that common, but I've certainly heard it many times over the decades. And almost any native speaker would understand it even on first encounter. To at least some people, it's an "idiom" because they hear and use it at least now and then. I don't suppose anyone would call it a "one-off" metaphoric usage (most of these 274 written instances are metaphorical, not talking about real nuclear weapons). Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 2:35
  • Upon further reflection, I somewhat agree -- although the last article I linked is on the same page as other articles that use go nuclear in the sense that the OP is asking about.
    – Gnawme
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 2:51
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    @FumbleFingers yes, go nuclear is an idiom that predates the US-Senate-specific meaning of nuclear option. The press are rifting on the connection between that idiom and the newer jargon.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 2:52
  • @Jon: I don't know what you mean by "rifting", but I can't see why one current/ephemeral usage by "Majority Leader Bill Frist and his colleagues" should have any real significance here. After all, I speak English, and I'm familiar with the expression insofar as it's relevant to ELU. The "newer jargon" meaning seems to me to be just a matter of day-to-day political commentary, not language in any real sense. Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 3:24
  • @FumbleFingers I think Jon meant riffing.
    – Gnawme
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 4:36

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