Some nuclear-related words that have come into common usage over the past 70 years represent new definitions of older terms. Thus, chain reaction, which had been used early in the 20th century to describe a chemical process, was applied to the self-perpetuating process in which the explosive properties of uranium become stronger and stronger. The term has been used figuratively more recently, as in “With more and more students objecting to the new policies, there was a virtual chain reaction of protest.”
Another transmogrified expression is firestorm, used as early as the late 1500s for a windstorm following a conflagration. After 1945 it came to connote a nuclear explosion as well. At least two other terms originally used then in relation to the atomic bomb were later applied figuratively. Fallout technically means the radioactive refuse from a nuclear detonation. Within a few years, though, the word was applied to the effects of a disagreement. In current parlance, an example might be, “The fallout from arguments between Republicans and Democrats may mean no new legislation will be passed.” Ground zero originally denoted the literal ground immediately under an exploded nuclear bomb, but it gradually came to be used for the site of any kind of violent explosion. Since 2001 it has been applied most frequently to the former site of New York City’s World Trade Center, destroyed in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Today the term has been expanded to include a centralized point where an intense event or activity—real or figurative—might occur.
The word “enrichment” has been used since the 14th century to mean any enhancement of quality, but since the 1940s it has been applied specifically to uranium. The most common form of the mineral, uranium 238 or U-238, has three more neutrons in its nucleus than the lighter form, uranium 235. U-235 has far more explosive potential, but it represents less than 1 percent of the uranium mined. The process of enhancing uranium to produce a higher concentration of U-235 is called enrichment and is usually accomplished by means of centrifuges. When the mineral is enriched slightly, from between 3 to 5 percent, it is strong enough to run many kinds of nuclear reactors. To make isotopes for medical use may require enrichment to 20 percent, while the weapons-grade uranium used in most bombs is enriched 85 to 90 percent.
A number of other terms have arisen with reference to nuclear. In the 19th century, the word referred to the nucleus, or center, of a celestial object, then somewhat later to the center of a living cell or an atom, and only in the mid-20th century to a nuclear weapon. Thus, to go nuclear means to acquire nuclear weapons, but the term is also used figuratively to take the strongest possible measures with potentially disastrous results or to become extremely angry. Although the word “nuclear” is still used in the sense of something central (as in nuclear family—mother, father, and children), its most frequent use today refers to weaponry.
A nuclear deterrent, first referred to in the early 1950s, alludes to the idea that a nuclear attack is so catastrophic an event that the threat of it is actually a way to discourage, or deter, violent confrontations, generally between nations. A nuclear option means a dramatic action and seems to have originated in politics in the 1970s. For example, “The Senate majority leader is threatening to exercise the nuclear option and put the issue to a vote before the full Senate.”
Since the mid 1950s, a dirty nuke has meant a nuclear weapon with considerable radioactive fallout, while the abbreviation nuke appeared in verb form—to nuke—in the 1950s and at first literally meant to attack or destroy using nuclear weapons. It was also sometimes used to mean to exact revenge. Then in the 1980s, after the microwave oven became a common appliance, nuking began to mean cooking by microwaving—a far gentler implication than its previous meanings.
A revised and greatly expanded edition of Christine Ammer’s book Fighting Words from War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers is now available as a Kindle e-book