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Work of Art: An eckalectic reading list

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By Art Trujillo

After years of having graded essays of kids all the way from seventh grade through their senior year, I encountered my share of words like “nuke-you-lerr” when the students meant “nuclear.”

Why is it so difficult? Why does this combination of nasals, plosives, vowels and glides make even scientists struggle — sometimes not even realizing it’s grating on others?

It’s easy to recall the criticism purists directed to George W. Bush, for whom that word may have been the most important in his mini-arsenal of verbiage.

Is the ex-President’s inclined cable railway known as a funicular?

In fairness to Bush, let’s not forget that other occupants of that office also struggled, possibly without realizing it. Jimmy Carter gave the word an entirely different sound: “nucrear.” And Presidents Eisenhower and Clinton enjoyed their share of linguistic creativity, according to Patricia T. O’Conner, author of “Origins of the Specious.”

My take on the cringe-inducing pronunciations is simply that if we don’t hear or read the new terms, we form their sounds through analogy. So if words look like other words, their pronunciation has to be the same, or so we think. There are just too many words like vehicular, particular, muscular and spectacular that lull us into rhyming “nuclear” with the others.

What word in English sounds even a bit like “nu-clee-er”? But yet, must the language cops of the world accept — and even endorse — this butchery simply because someone might have trouble rendering certain words? When we learned new words in school, didn’t we need to learn to spell them, use diacritical marking to help us pronounce them, and finally “pronounce the word three times, and then, and then, it will be yours forever”?

That “yours forever” enticement came from my years at Immaculate Conception School. “Do you mean, Sister Mary Buñelo, that if I say something three times, it’s mine?” I would ask. “Yes, Arthur.”

So, immediately I uttered: “Gina Lollobrigida, Gina Lollobrigida, Gina Lollobrigida.”

Didn’t work, but I continue to hold out hope, except with a new candidate, Katherine Zeta Jones, times three.

Dick Cavett once reported that Bush said, “I have an ‘eckalectic’ reading list,” implying his library is vast and varied. Cavett added, “Until he was nice enough to repeat it, I was sure he had said “epileptic,” which at least would have been a word. I prefer the three-syllable version ‘eclectic,’ but then Bush is The Decider.”

Finally, Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense, how living in Taos, reportedly believed that hidden weapons are “found in a ‘cash-ay.’” Well, we all ought to save our cache and sashay right over there to find them.

• • •

What was she thinking?

School administrators and teachers in New Mexico are justifiably wary of the decision by Gov. Susana Martinez’s education secretary to spend $152,000 to hire out-of-state consultants. The rationale used by Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera is to track student achievement and handle public relations.

But what appears most upsetting in the Land of Enchantment is that at least six of the consultants have careers tied to either former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, or his brother, George W. Bush.

Why can’t people get it straight? You don’t increase the weight of your herd by subjecting it to repeated weighing. And you can’t expect to improve student performance by constantly testing them. Remember, these scholastic forms of the Procrustean Bed are likely to drive some teachers to “teach to the test.” Remember, Procrustes was the mythological innkeeper who stretched or amputated visitors’ limbs to ensure they fit exactly into his beds.        

The federal No Child Left Behind program, according to many state educational leaders, is “failed” and “botched.” Let’s hope additional years of failure don’t await our state’s schools.

• • •

Rene Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher, is credited with having said, “Cogito, ergo sum,” which translates to “I think, therefore I am.”

Well, he appeared in an early episode of “Jeopardy,” and during a tense round, he shouted, “I can’t think.”

He disappeared.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.