What is the name of the phonetic shift behind the common mispronunciation of the word nuclear (nucular)?
Or, if the answer is "none", then I would appreciate learning the origin of the pronunciation.
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It only takes a minute to sign up.Sign up to join this community
This phenomenon is known as metathesis.
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 more accepted pronunciation – may be a "deliberate choice". He suggests that the reasons for this choice are to "assert authority" or to sound folksy.
I personally find the Zwicky hypothesis more compelling: the pronunciation is formed by analogy with words like "molecular" and "particular". But both are possible, and in fact, it doesn't necessarily have to be the same method of production for all speakers — there could be interspeaker variation.
(Note that Zwicky's explanation isn't actually "metathesis" per se at all; instead, being nuke + ular, it is formed "as it should be".)
Causes of the metathesis nuclear > nucular
It occurred to me that very few other words have the syllabic make-up of nùclear, but there is a host of words in `-cular (with antepenultimate stress) eg binocular, vascular, muscular, particular, spectacular to name a few.
Thus the shift nuclear > nucular makes perfectly good sense, as a case where an isolated make-up is adapted to a more prevalent pattern.