"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Ebola, Ewedu, Babalawo Professors, and NAFDAC

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

When I wrote my column last week titled “Nigeria’s Growing List of Voodoo Ebola Professors” I didn’t expect it to be as impactful as it turned out. First, Professor Adebukola Ositelu,  the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) eye doctor who claimed, without any empirical evidence, that ewedu “can prevent and cure Ebola” (causing me to call her “a Babalawo professor”), as if responding to my criticism of her, doubled down on her outrageous claims.
Adebukola Ositelu
She told the Guardian that her ewedu prescription for the prevention and cure of Ebola was inspired by a revelation from God, not by scientific research. "This was revealed by God to His people at a reservation after prayers,” she said. “If you want, you take it, if you don’t want, you reject it. There is no cause for argument; the wisdom of God is more than any other person’s. He is the one who created all these things and He can reveal it to us as He wants. It’s a grace which I think everyone should embrace. Ewedu is what we all eat, but the way they told us to prepare it is very different from what we’ve been doing before because we use it as delicacy [sic]. But this time around, it is used as medicine, for prevention and cure.

 “This confirms that the wisdom of man is foolishness before God and He only grants knowledge when He desires so to do [sic] for the benefit of mankind, whereas many believes [sic[ that it is their ingenuity that grants them fame- this is underserved accord [sic]."

The contemptibly sinister ignorance contained in this absurd rant is simply beyond the pale. How in God’s name did a woman with this kind of superstitious and atavistic mindset become a professor of medicine? Medicine! I certainly wouldn’t want someone like that to treat me if I have eye problems. She’s a real danger to humanity.
It appears that this women either isn’t who she claims to be or needs some mental examination. Something is definitely amiss. When a medical scientist mistakes her bizarre hallucinatory fantasies as divinely ordained cures for a fatal, pernicious disease, you know something isn’t screwed right somewhere. The Nigerian Medical Association should investigate this woman and stop her from endangering more lives.

When I called her a “Babalawo professor” last week, I was only being facetious. But she has now justified the label by telling the media that she didn’t need scientific research or drug tests to come out with a novel cure for an unknown disease. She evidently missed her calling. She should be a witch doctor, not a medical doctor. In fact, I think she has already cast her lot with witch doctors.

It is tragic that there are many glorified witch doctors with lab coats like Ositelu in our hospitals and universities. They are more dangerous than Ebola. They are insidious, hard-to-detect but persistent and privileged human viruses of illiteracy who spread and replicate fatal medical ignorance among gullible and helpless people. “Professors” like Adebukola Ositelu are a blight and a crying shame on the Nigerian academe.

That is why I’m relieved that the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, (NAFDAC) said it would prosecute “Professor” Ositelu for “making unverified claims that could mislead the public.”

Interestingly, the language that NAFDAC used to call out Ositelu is eerily similar to the language in my column. For instance, NAFDAC’s Director General, Dr. Paul Orhii, was quoted in the Vanguard of September 17, 2014 to have said, “One consequence of these unsupported and possibly fraudulent claims is that people may be misled into a false sense of invincibility on account of eating Ewedu or bitter kola and drop their guards.”

Compare that to what I wrote in my September 13, 2014 column: “One of the consequences of their flippant, unsupported, and probably fraudulent, claims to herbal cures for Ebola is that scores of people may be led to let down their guards and to be lulled into a false sense of invincibility on account of eating ewedu, or bitter kola, or whatever other wacky herbal remedy some other lazy, attention-seeking voodoo professors may come up with.”

The NAFDAC DG obviously got some inspiration for his intervention from reading my column. That’s heartening, even flattering. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But it’s perplexing that Ositelu made her first claim about the curative efficacy of ewedu for the treatment and prevention of Ebola at a NAFDAC event, and she wasn’t cautioned by NAFDAC until we called her out. Well, better later than never.

Ositelu’s pronouncements constitute a grave medical malpractice because she is exploiting her prestige as a professor of medicine in one of Nigeria’s leading teaching hospitals to practice and popularize babalawo (or is it mamalawo) medicine. The social basis of her legitimacy derives from the fact of her being a medical doctor who is thought to be trained in the scientific method, who rose through the ranks to become a professor of medicine. But she clearly regards herself as a witch doctor who has no use for science and research, for whom psychoactive oracular visions are superior to scientific inquiry.

I hope people of conscience in the Nigerian medical and pharmacological community will rise up and speak up against this charlatan in their midst.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Q and A on Comparison of Nigerian and Native Varieties of English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Is the word “bastard” no longer a bad word among native English speakers? Is the expression “with immediate effect” uniquely Nigerian? Why isn’t the word “indigene” found in dictionaries? Is it “Ebola Virus Disease” or “Ebola Viral Disease”? For answers to these questions, read below:

 Is the word “bastard” no longer a bad word among native English speakers? I watched a movie sometime ago where someone called his friend a “bastard” and the friend didn’t take offence. What have I missed?

 “Bastard” can be, and often is, a bad word in all varieties of English that I’m familiar with. However, in informal British English, “bastard” is sometimes used jocularly to refer to any man, such as in the expression “lucky bastard,” which merely means a “lucky man.” In the movie you watched, the person probably called his friend a “lucky bastard”—or something along those lines. That’s not the least bit offensive in British English. But I won’t guarantee that you won’t get a punch in the face if you say that to an American. “Bastard” is an all-round bad word in American English.

But “bastard” has undergone a notable semantic shift in all native English varieties in the last few years. It’s no longer used to refer to people born outside wedlock. That sense of the word is now outdated because childbearing outside marriage is no longer the cultural taboo that it once was in the West. I have lived in the United States for a decade and have never once heard anyone referred to as a “bastard” on account of being born outside wedlock. “Children from single-parent homes” is now the umbrella term for what used to be called “bastards,” “illegitimate children,” “children from broken homes,” etc.

In its usage guide on the word “bastard,” the Oxford English Dictionary writes:  “In the past, the word bastard was the standard term in both legal and nonlegal use for ‘an illegitimate child.’ Today, however, it has little importance as a legal term and is retained today in this older sense only as a term of abuse.”

Nigeria hasn’t quite made this cultural shift yet.  That’s why children born outside wedlock are still stigmatized as “bastards” or “illegitimate children” (shegu in Hausa, omo ale in Yoruba, etc.). I can completely understand why you would be flummoxed by the very fact of someone calling his friend a “bastard” even in a jocular context. The informal British English sense of “bastard” to humorously refer to any man isn’t mainstream in Nigeria.

Do you have a problem with the expression “with immediate effect,” which is common in Nigerian civil service language? An English lecturer in my university says the expression is exclusively Nigerian and a product of our prolonged military rule. Is he right? Please share your usually insightful thoughts with us on this.

I don’t have a problem with the expression. It’s a perfectly standard idiomatic expression, and it isn’t exclusive to Nigerian English. I, too, have read several academic papers by Nigerian researchers of Nigerian English where the claim is repeatedly made that “with immediate effect” is a military-inspired Nigerian English coinage that will—or should—disappear from the active mental lexicon of Nigerians with the advent of civilian rule. That’s nonsense.

In writing this response, I decided to search the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbe) to see the global distribution of the expression among the world’s English varieties. (GloWbe is a new corpus “composed of 1.9 billion words from 1.8 million web pages in 20 different English-speaking countries” that allows you to “to see the frequency of any word, phrase, or grammatical construction in each of the 20 different countries.”)

So what did I find? Great Britain led the pack with 276 matches, followed by India with 152 matches. Nigeria came third with 133 matches. Ghana and Zambia tied for 4th place with 111 matches each. Other matches are: Ireland, 83; Sri Lanka, 74; Pakistan, 63; Jamaica, 49; Kenya, 41; Tanzania, 37; Malaysia, 29; Bangladesh, 28; USA, 27; Singapore, 27; New Zealand, 22; Australia, 28; the Philippines, 7; Canada, 6.

So, as you can see, “with immediate effect” appears in all varieties of English with varying levels of frequency. Instructively, British English, the “mother” of all English varieties, has the most matches for the expression.

Macmillan Dictionary defines “with immediate effect” thus:  “with immediate effect (=starting now): I handed in my resignation, with immediate effect.” The Oxford Dictionary of English renders the phrase as a variation of the idiom “with effect from,” which it describes as British English. It defines the expression as “starting (from a specified date): he resigned with effect from 1 June/ the company said yesterday it would lay off all staff with immediate effect” (emphasis original).

The preferred expression for “with immediate effect” in American and Canadian English is “effective immediately,” as in “he resigned his job effective immediately.”

I am confused on these two words: “indigene” and “condole.” I noticed that they are not in the dictionary, but we use them in our spoken and written English in Nigeria. Please I need some explanations on the use of these words. Are they Standard British English, American English or Nigerian English?

You probably missed my August 3, 2014 article titled “5 Words Native English Speakers Never Ever Use for Themselves.” If you didn’t, you would have noticed that “indigene” is one of the 5 words I identified as almost exclusively reserved for nonwhite people in modern spoken and written English.  The word isn’t in most dictionaries because it has run out of currency in native-speaker linguistic climes. Even some versions of Microsoft Word mark the word with wiggly red underlines to indicate that it doesn’t recognize it as a legitimate English word. But it is a legitimate word. It’s just rarely used in the everyday speech of native English speakers.

 But Nigeria’s socio-cultural peculiarities, which dispose people to cherish a sentimental attachment to their primordial origins and to use this as an identity marker, still make the word relevant in Nigeria. 

I don’t know which dictionary you checked, but all my dictionaries have an entry for “condole.” Several people have written to me in the past to ask for my comment on what they said is the widespread misuse of “condole” in Nigerian English. I have checked Nigerian newspapers online and haven’t found any misuse of the word. I am curious to know where the notion that the word is misused in Nigeria comes from. “Condole” simply means to show sympathy or express grief, especially because someone has died. The word always co-occurs with the preposition “with,” as in “President Jonathan condoled with the family over the death of their breadwinner.” That’s how I see the word used in Nigerian newspapers.

People say “Ebola Virus Disease.” Shouldn’t it be “Ebola Viral Disease”?

Both expressions are commonly used. The World Health Organization officially calls it “Ebola Virus Disease.”  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an important institution in the fight against Ebola, alternates between “Ebola Virus Disease” and “Ebola Viral Disease.”

But I see where you’re going with your question. “Viral” is the adjectival form of “virus,” which is a noun. Since “disease” is a noun, why qualify a noun with a noun when it has an adjectival form? That’s certainly a legitimate question, but I suspect that the reason “Ebola Virus Disease” tends to be preferred to “Ebola Viral Disease” is that the Internet has caused a shift in the meaning of “viral” (to mean “circulated rapidly and widely” as in: the video has gone viral) and can lead people to think that Ebola is a disease that has circulated widely and rapidly instead of a disease that is caused by a virus. In “Ebola Virus Disease,” “virus” functions as an attributive noun that modifies “disease.”

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Nigeria’s Growing List of Voodoo Ebola Professors

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Although Nigeria’s first recorded death from Ebola happened only in July, there’s already a lengthening list of Nigerian medical science and pharmacology professors who have persuaded the news media into believing that they are “experts” who have found herbal cures for the disease.

The first professor who made headlines over claims of finding a herbal cure for Ebola is Professor Maurice Iwu, former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission. He initially told the news media that laboratory tests he conducted in America showed that bitter kola (or is it kola nuts?) could cure patients afflicted by the Ebola virus. “This is a very exciting discovery,” he said. “The same forest that yields the dreaded Ebola virus could be a source of the cure.”

But in an interview with Channels TV, following a blistering attack on his claims by Sahara Reporters , Iwu scaled back the magnitude of the efficacy he ascribed to his herbal “remedy.” He now claims that bitter kola only “arrests the replication of the Ebola virus,” not cure it. But the initial claim that bitter kola cures Ebola has already caused many Nigerians to stockpile the herb.

Then came a Professor Sunday Aremu Omilabu, described by Sahara Reporters as a “Consultant Virologist and Ebola expert” at the University of Lagos’ College of Medicine. Omilabu hasn’t (yet) claimed to have found a cure for Ebola, but he told Sahara Reporters that “Ebola virus particles can be transmitted by air” in spite of claims to the contrary in the broader medical community. His claims are obviously not the product of any empirical medical research.  I searched his name in a comprehensive database of scholarly medical journals and found no article authored or co-authored by him on Ebola. Yet he is an “Ebola expert.”

The latest “Ebola professor” to hypnotize the Nigerian news media with the razzle-dazzle of the putative curative powers of Nigerian herbs is one Professor Adebukola Ositelu. The (Nigerian) Sun reported her to have told participants at a NAFDAC-organized “African Traditional Medicine Day” on September 4 that ewedu (known in English as corchorus or jute and in Hausa as rama) can “prevent and cure” Ebola. “To administer the treatment,” the Sun reported her as saying, “the ewedu should be rinsed thoroughly with liquid vinegar.” She advised the preparer of the herbal concoction to “blend and cook with drinkable water, without adding salt or kaun (potash) or any other ingredients; then take a 25cl or half a tumbler measure once a week, first thing in the morning before any meal for prevention, adding that those already infected should take it every morning for seven to five days.”

Ositelu, mind you, is a professor of ophthalmology, that is, the branch of medicine that studies the eyes. Yet she is giving elaborate “expert” advice on and prescription for the cure of Ebola based purely on hunch. This lady is clearly a “babalawo” professor that doesn’t bother with the pesky protocols of scientific research before broadcasting results. I wonder what business she has being a professor of ophthalmology.

I am sure there are many more professors who have spoken with the news media about having found herbal remedies for Ebola that I have missed.  Even more professors may come forward with even more bizarre claims in the future.

Everyone who spares a thought for reversing the scourge of Ebola should be worried by the growing trend of medical and pharmacological professors addressing the media about claims of finding cures for Ebola. It is simply irresponsible. If these people are truly professors in medical science, they should know enough to know that announcement of cures for diseases isn’t done through media interviews. It usually follows established protocols—starting from actual empirical research, to publication of findings in peer-reviewed journals, etc.

Although Iwu’s bitter-kola trial drug is the product of some preliminary research (13 years ago!), it hasn’t been tested on even mice, not to talk of humans.  “Even if this particular drug does not succeed through the whole drug approval process, we can use it to construct a new drug for this deadly disease,” Iwu said 13 years ago. Since then, nothing has happened. The drug didn’t to go through the approval process he talked about. Yet, Iwu made it seem like he had just made a new discovery this year.

These people are an embarrassment to the medical and pharmacological professoriate. But, even worse, they are a danger to humanity. Because of the social and cultural capital they wield, the pronouncements of medical and pharmaceutical professors carry a lot of weight, especially in precarious times such as this. One of the consequences of their flippant, unsupported, and probably fraudulent, claims to herbal cures for Ebola is that scores of people may be led to let down their guards and to be lulled into a false sense of invincibility on account of eating ewedu, or bitter kola, or whatever other wacky herbal remedy some other lazy, attention-seeking voodoo professors may come up with.

To be sure, it could very well be that kola, ewedu, and other herbal remedies can indeed cure Ebola, but we can’t know this for sure until an actual empirical study has been conducted and its results published in a medium other scientists respect. When a scientist discovers or suspects he has discovered a cure for a disease, the right thing to do is to test and publish the discovery, not to rush to the press.

I think the Nigerian news media also failed their readers and viewers by giving legitimacy to the uncorroborated, self-indulgent blusters of these glamorized babalawo priests masquerading as professors. Scientific news, especially news of medical feats, is never reported solely on the unverified claims of a lone scientist.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Q and A on Grammar and Usage of Popular Expressions

Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Is it insulting to call an older woman a “lady”? What is wrong with the expression “who is fooling who?”? Is it ever acceptable to use “more” or “better” without “than” in a sentence? Find answers to these and other questions in this week’s Q and A.

I got extremely busy in the last couple of weeks and lost most of the questions sent to me by readers via my email and Facebook. If you sent a question in the last two or so months, please resend it. My apologies.

I like your column. It helps me a lot. I will please like you to shed light on the use of 'lady' and 'woman'. A few days back, I was at the Postgraduate School of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and the deputy sub-dean was addressed as 'a lady'. She instantly got angry. She protested that a man younger than her should not address her as a ‘lady’; that she should properly be called a ‘woman’.  My understanding is that 'a lady' is equivalent to 'a gentleman' or 'my lord'. We need more light on this socio-linguistic inferential translation.

There is not the slightest hint of condescension or discourtesy in the word “lady” that I know of in any variety of English. If anything, as you rightly observed, “lady” is a term of respect for women who are considered refined and socially superior. In countries where English is spoken as a native language, it’s usual to insult women by saying they’re “not real ladies” or that they are “unladylike.” So it’s ironic that a woman would take offense at being called a “lady.”

 It’s true, though, that in American English “lady” can be used informally to address a woman in a rude, peremptory manner, as in “I am sorry, lady, but you can’t get in because you’re late.” British English speakers deeply resent this usage of the term. I met a British guy here in the United States sometime ago who told me one of his pet peeves about American English is the tendency for Americans to call every woman a lady, even if the woman is some “strumpet.” “Not every woman is a lady, you know,” he said, as if I didn’t know that already. “It takes class, nobility, well-bred manners to be a lady.”

You’re right when you said “lady” is the female equivalent of “gentleman” for polite address. Female judges are also addressed as “My Lady.” The only derogatory expression that is associated with “lady” that I know of is “lady of the night,” which means a prostitute.

But it helps to also know that the lexical ancestor of “lady,” which the Oxford Dictionary of English identified as “hlaefdige,” meant “a woman to whom homage or obedience is due, such as the wife of a lord, also specifically the Virgin Mary….” So “lady” has always been a term of respect for women.

“Woman,” on the other hand, doesn’t have the denotation and connotation of reverence that “lady” has. In general terms “woman” merely means an adult female, but many of its other meanings are unflattering. For instance, in both British and American English “woman” can be used as a rude form of address for a female, such as “don’t be an idiot, woman!” It can also mean a female employed to do housework. Nigerians call such a person “house girl.” American English speakers tend to prefer the term “cleaning lady”—to the annoyance of British English speakers who reserve “lady” strictly for respectable women.

 Also note that “woman of the streets” is the older form of “lady of the night,” the euphemistic expression for a prostitute. I suspect that “lady of the night” started as an American English expression since Americans appear to always want to denude “lady” of its exclusive claims to nobility and high social class.

In summary, the female deputy sub-dean erred in assuming that she was being disrespected on account of being addressed as a “lady.”

Which of these sentences is correct: 1. If I had known, I would have told you. 2. If I would have known, I would have told you.

From a descriptivist perspective, both sentences are correct. But from a prescriptivist perspective, only the first sentence is correct. I won’t bore the reader with a syntactic analysis of the sentences. It suffices to say, however, that the second sentence is chiefly American English. But even in America, it is more typical in southern United States than it is in northeastern United States.

When I first came to the United States, I used to think that only modestly educated people spoke like that, but I have since found out that it’s a national preference.

This is also true of past participles, which have practically died in the American south. People here say “I would have saw him” instead of “I would have seen him.” Or “he should have went there” instead of “he should have gone there.” I can’t get used to it. It still hurts my ears each time I hear people replace the past participle with a past tense.

What is wrong with the expression “who is fooling who?” Someone told me it’s wrong, but I don’t see what’s wrong with it.

You don’t see anything wrong with it because “whom” is gradually on its way out of the English language. But before the current shift, “who” used to be universally considered a subjective pronoun and “whom” an objective pronoun. Subjective pronouns initiate action and usually, but not always, appear at the beginning of a sentence while objective pronouns receive action.

This probably sounds abstract and unhelpful. Maybe these examples will help: “I” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with it is “me.” “He” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with it is “him.” “She” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with it is “her.” “We” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with it is “us.” “They” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with it is “them.”  “Who” is a subjective pronoun; the objective pronoun associated with is “whom.”

Would you say, for instance, something like: “he is fooling he”? Or “they are fooling they”? Of course not. That’s because you’re using two subjective pronouns in the same sentence. In other words, we have two initiators of action with no recipient of the action. If you apply the same logic you’d see that “who is fooling who?” violates this basic subject-object symmetry.  Since “who” is the initiator of an action (i.e., fooling), the recipient of the action should be “whom.” Just like you would say “he is fooling him,” not “he is fooling he.”

However, the notion of “whom” as the objective case of “who” is losing currency in contemporary English usage. That’s why it’s far more common for people to say “who is fooling who” than for them to say “who is fooling whom.” I found nearly 16 million hits for “who is fooling who” on Google and only 2. 6 million hits for “who is fooling whom.” But most grammar experts would say you should use “who is fooling who” in informal contexts and “who is fooling whom” in formal contexts.

Is it ever acceptable to use “more” or “better” without “than” in a sentence? For instance, can I write or say “It’s more common for people to disrespect elders these days?” I have an acquaintance here in Kano who never tires to remind me that I can’t use “more” or better without “than.”

It’s true that comparative forms like “more” and “better” should ideally appear alongside “than” to complete the sense of comparison they convey. Nonetheless, it’s pedantic and churlish to insist that comparative forms must always co-occur with “than.” Modern usage convention doesn’t support that dogmatism. For instance, in the sentence “some more money is needed for the project,” it is unnecessary to add “than.”

But, more importantly, over the years, advertising has dulled our sensitivity to the kinds of explicit comparisons your friend probably has in mind when he expresses discomfort with the use of “more” and “better” without “than.” A lot of the time, the comparison is implied. When a company says it’s “more responsive to the needs of customers” or that it has a “better customer service” it’s an elliptical way to “dis” their competitor who is often known to the target of the ad. But the fact of not directly mentioning the competitor’s name saves the company from potential legal troubles.

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