IF EVER a word needed protection from the forces that threaten to blow its contained universe to bits, that word is “nuclear”.

First, there are the people who mispronounce it as “new-kew-lar”, which must be immensely disturbing to its equilibrium.

Second, and worse, there are those who shudder in distaste when they hear “nuclear” mentioned in conjunction with “energy”, “war”, “physics” or “weapons”. It has even become a bastardised verb in the form of “nuke”. How demeaning.

There is a lobby that would like to drive this poor little word into the sea, when all it wants to do is settle down, have a nuclear family and keep itself to itself.

Much noxious muttering has followed in the wake of reports that the Russians might build a nuclear power station in South Africa. Put nuclear in the same vicinity as a Russian and watch the gaskets vaporise. It’s what you might call a nuclear reaction.

The Cold War was a gift to novelists and filmmakers, but in inspiring so many imaginations it also created a paranoia that will linger long after the last weapons of mass destruction fail to materialise.

Not every mushroom cloud has a silver lining, of course, but the atomic stand-off enriched the English language with new words and phrases, and gave us some new uses for old words and phrases.

Were it not for the Russians, we would not have balalaikas, gulags, samovars or the game of bridge. Imagine a world without troikas, apparatchiks, intelligentsia, shamans, samizdat, mammoth or sable. Imagine a world without vodka.

Critical mass, chain reaction, brinkmanship, proliferation, fusion, fission, scenario, tactical, deterrent, meltdown, overkill and collateral damage are all products of the chilly days when each side of the world believed that on the other side was a red button with a finger poised perilously above it.

Or perhaps the Russians thought the button on the other side of the world was blue, I don’t know.

Russia may have made a few vigorous attempts to regain its former unpopularity, but in language terms it is remarkable how things have changed. So many once-terrifying words have moved on to new purposes. (I could have said “repurposed” there but I’m not quite that evolved yet.)

In 1949, the word “core” struck fear into the hearts of those to whom it meant the inner part of a nuclear reactor. Let us give thanks that “core” has been reclaimed by apples, although in the business world it is in danger of being press-ganged into performing other services.

“Scenario” has come a long way from where it was in 1960, when it described hypothetical nuclear wars. “Critical mass” is now the name of cycling clubs whose aim is not to be run over by cars. “Fusion” is food served by chefs who like to hedge their bets. Even “nuke” has lost its teeth and is associated with microwave popcorn.

No doubt the Russian language too was enriched by terms coined during those days of criticality. That I also do not know, because I do not speak Russian. There are, however, a handful of Russian words that managed to squeeze under the Iron Curtain and insinuate themselves into everyday English usage. I wonder if any of these words had code names when they first defected. Perhaps balaclavas were called woolly hats and borscht was called beetroot soup, just to confuse the enemy.

Were it not for the Russians, we would not have balalaikas, gulags, samovars or the game of bridge. Imagine a world without troikas, apparatchiks, intelligentsia, shamans, samizdat, mammoth or sable. Imagine a world without vodka.

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