The language we use is important in naming and imagining our world "our world as it is today and what it might become. In a very real sense, language constructs our reality" it helps us understand the world in which we live. Yet casual language use, or slang, can obscure or confuse basic facts. In the Nuclear Lexicon, we explore how nuclear phrases and meanings have slipped into everyday language. Sometimes the facts of nuclear technology are mis-represented or exaggerated in common parlance.
Take for example William Laurence, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who was hired by the US Government to chronicle the progress of the Manhattan Project. In1948, he described a variety of uses for atomic power, such as "abolishing disease and poverty, anxiety and fear... controlling the weather and finding the key to the riddle of old age" (Laurence quoted in Hilgartner 1982: 39). Laurence claimed that with the dawn of the nuclear power there would be "Better, finer and more nourishing plants, better, cheaper, and more abundant fertilizer; better and richer soils, farms, and gardens; better metals and machines; better and finer clothing and homes; better men and women. . . . Such power plants could, in short, make the dream of the earth as a Promised Land come true in time for many of us already born to see and enjoy it." (Laurence quoted in Hilgartner 1982: 39)
Over six decades later, the promise of the "peaceful" atom has not freed humanity from poverty or fear. And the language Laurence used to describe nuclear technology is still hotly debated. Misrepresentation of the facts can spill over into common use or street vernacular that hides the reality of nuclear technology to the point of ridicule. Here is a list of words related to nuclear weapons and nuclear power that have entered our everday language.
You’re the Bomb!
A superlative to describe something or someone as good/great, as in: You are really cool! You are really wonderful!
I’m going ballistic!
A state of being to describe a feeling of hyperactive or craziness, as in: I’m going nuts!
I’m having a meltdown!
A state of being to describe a feeling of helplessness or an inability to achieve something, as in: I’m going to break down!
A phrase used to describe destruction or dismay. Can be used as an expletive. The verb to nuke can also be used in reference to heating food in a microwave. In this sense TV dinners, frozen pre-prepared, meals, can be referred to as nuclear dinners. Uses include: Nuke it! or Instead of using the stovetop, let’s nuke the popcorn.
What an atom splitter!
A derogatory phrase used to berate a person’s intelligence, as in: he not too bright, a real atom splitter.
Used as an adjective to describe a beautiful woman, as in: She’s a real bombshell. Marilyn Monroe was among the first, the original Blonde Bombshell.
Nuclear terminology describing the excessive force of a nuclear explosion, for example that a nuclear bomb not only destroys but over-kills, kit carries more force than is required for total destruction. Now the word is synonymous with anything thought to be excessive, as in: that homework assignment was overkill.
Light, heat, blast and radiation are some of the primary effects of a nuclear explosion. Immense light and thermal heat (comparable to the interior of the sun) initiate a phenomenon called a firestorm. Firestorms deplete oxygen from the environment and create hurricane-like winds, which attract debris and feed the storm itself, causing super-infernos. No living being can survive a firestorm. The word is now used to describe any controversy, as in: there’s a firestorm brewing in the city’s threat to raise bus and subway fares.
The term originated with the world’s first nuclear explosion at the Trinity Test in Almagordo, New Mexico. The exact point beneath an explosion was called point zero - zero as the center point of the destruction. Later, the term was specifically used in reference to the devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the origin of "Ground Zero" is rooted in the development of nuclear bombs and their use in World War II, today the phrase is used to describe the former World Trade Center Site in New York City.
Bikini Bathing Suit
In 1946, the French clothing designer Louis Reard, invented a two-piece bathing suit and named it after the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific, where the US government was conducting atmospheric nuclear weapon tests. The famous, and at the time shocking, swimming costume was named after the results of a hydrogen bomb test, which literally split an atoll in two, inspiring Reard to invent his bathing suit, still popular today.
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