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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

nuclear option

(1990’s | journalese | “extreme (or drastic or desperate) measure,” “last resort,” “irrevocable decision”)

Gorblimey, china plates, I do believe this expression counts as a Briticism, at least in its contemporary sense. As far back as the sixties, the phrase was widely used in the U.S. to talk about energy generation or weapons. “The nuclear option,” on one hand, was what utility executives urged us not to neglect; on the other, it heralded the development of atomic weapons (for those that didn’t already have them), or different ways it might be possible to use them (for those that did). That was true at least until 1980. Not long after that, one started seeing the odd figurative use, but it was much more common in the U.K. than in the U.S. up until 2004 or so, when the phrase assumed the meaning we hear most commonly today: the majority party in the U.S. Senate taking away the filibuster, the last-ditch means for the minority of derailing legislation. Since then, it has crept into other spheres — trade negotiations, computer maintenance, even sports.

Semantically, I find the phrase surprisingly difficult to pin down. Is it an unanswerable blow? A point of no return? Overkill? Destroying the cause of a problem rather than simply solving it? Nuclear war can only be imagined in terms of all-encompassing destruction, persisting for centuries, at least, so the figurative use has a palette of apocalypses to choose from. But the slipperiness brings starkly into view the loss of force the expression has undergone. Inevitably, the “nuclear option” in negotiation or managing your players involves lower stakes than it does in its more literal senses, even though the literal meanings have not gone away. In time the terror will leach out of it. (Not that eliminating the filibuster isn’t terrifying, but you can’t compare it to thousands dead in a flash.) Grammatically, it’s more predictable: “nuclear option” always takes the definite article; you’ll never hear “a nuclear option,” though that sort of thing can always change.

Today’s Senate is pretty debased, but they have not quite gone the whole hog with the nuclear option, not yet, anyway. Oh, wait, they have, at least as the term was originally understood in 2004. Back then, Republicans threatened to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees. They didn’t go through with it, and two years later the Democrats took the Senate back. But in 2013, the Democrats did change the rules, exempting only Supreme Court nominees. In 2017, the Republicans finished the job, but so far have stoutly resisted doing away with the filibuster against legislation, Trump’s uncomprehending dismay notwithstanding. The majority party in the Senate has been pointing fingers and making threats at least since the nineties, and minority power has diminished though not disappeared. Those who believe the minority party should not have the power to stop majority-supported legislation may tout government efficiency as their most powerful rationale. I say the last thing we need is efficient government, particularly at the federal level. Efficient governments are dictatorships. Our system has been designed from the beginning to pose obstacles to rushed legislation that we’ll all regret later. The framers weren’t always right by any means, but we would do well to reflect on their wisdom here.

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