I would like to thank Don Blaheta,
a linguistics grad student at Brown, for posting an explanation of why “people who persist in going on and on about how dumb the President is for being unable to say the word ‘nuclear’” are wrong. As he says,
There are excellent linguistic reasons why people (and it’s a whole lot more people than just the President) do this. The process is called metathesis, and it is one that happens in many languages. It tends to happen where the reversed syllable ends up making the word easier to pronounce—in the case of “nuclear”, the standard pronunciation has a front vowel between two back vowels, but the metathesised version has all back vowels. Another commonly-cited example in English is the word “comfortable”, where the T and R are switched, allowing the following schwa vowel to drop out entirely and reducing the word to three syllables. Crucially, this is a regular phonological process affecting speakers of many languages, and not something that is indicative of intelligence.
Well said, and the next time I get into a discussion of the matter I’ll just point to your crystal-clear statement.
Update. Don is now (June 2008) an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, and he revisited the “nucular” issue in 2005.