Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

It is still unclear whether the on-again off-again (repeat as many times as appropriate) summit between the Presidents of the US and North Korea will take place, but the possibility of it happening has led to much talk in the news of the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and of nuclear issues in general.

Nuclear is of course an adjective formed by combining the noun nucleus with the suffix -ar, and nucleus is older than you might think, having been used in the 17th century to describe the cores of celestial bodies such as comets and planets, long before being applied to the centres of atoms or cells, which happened in the mid 19th century. Its Latin origin is still evident in its plural, nuclei.

The first recorded use of nuclear in 1833 was in reference to the astronomical meanings, with others including extended and figurative uses following soon after. Nuclear forms many compounds, most of which relate to the nuclei of cells and atoms, and the energy that derives from manipulating the structure of the latter. You can find some of them in the Related Words box here.

Nuclear has a number of other uses, all related to these central meanings. In sociology, a nuclear family is a basic social unit consisting of a father, a mother and their dependent children, a concept that was first used in the early 20th century and now seems rather outdated. Figuratively, the nuclear option is an extreme option that someone resorts to when all else has failed or seems likely to fail. If someone goes nuclear, meanwhile, they either get very angry or resort to extreme measures.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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