"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Saturday, October 14, 2017

CBN’s Aisha Ahmad, Misogynistic Bullying, and Religious Hypocrisy

By Farooq Kperogi, Ph.D.

At least two categories of (male) Nigerian social media denizens were disconcerted by the appointment of a Mrs. Aisha Ahmad as one the Central Bank of Nigeria’s four deputy governors. The first group said she is unqualified because her promotion as Executive Director by her bank was suspiciously co-extensive with her appointment as CBN’s deputy governor, suggesting that her promotion was done in anticipation— or as a direct consequence— of her appointment.

To lend credibility to their claims, they falsely said being Executive Director of a bank is a prerequisite for appointment to the position of CBN deputy governor, and that it is this requirement that inspired her rapid promotion. They also said her professional qualifications and experiences are ill-suited to the position of deputy governor in charge of economic policy.

The second group, made up of mostly northern Muslim men, said she was unworthy of her position—wait for it— because her formal western attire doesn’t conform to the Islamic dress code for Muslim women! One widely shared Facebook status update, in fact, defamed her as a “sex worker” on account of her dressing. That’s a prima facie case of libel.

While these groups are animated by different impulses, they are united by a common, gnawing patriarchal arrogance and unease with successful, high-flying professional women. I can bet my bottom dollar that had she been an older man, news of her appointment won’t even show up on Nigerian social media radar. As the father of three girls—northern Nigerian Muslim girls like Mrs. Ahmad, I might add—I have a personal and emotional investment in confronting and fighting the culture of misogynistic bullying of successful women.

So let’s examine the first group’s assertions. An online newspaper called TheCable, in an October 9 story titled “FACT CHECK: Is Aishah Ahmad really qualified to be CBN deputy-governor?” exploded all the claims of the first group. It pointed out, for instance, that Section 8 (1) of the CBN Act requires only that people appointed as deputy governors be “persons of recognised financial experience.”

 It does not require that bankers appointed to deputy governorship of the CBN be executive directors. “TheCable discovered that Suleiman Barau, currently deputy-governor (corporate services), was not an ED before his appointment in 2007,” the paper wrote. “His highest banking position was general manager… at the now defunct FSB International Bank Plc.”

The paper also mentioned my friend Kingsley Moghalu who became CBN deputy governor without any prior banking experience. Moghalu himself told me sometime ago that former CBN governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (now Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II) single-handedly recommended him for the job.

It’s also preposterous to argue that someone with a 20-year experience in the finance industry isn’t fit to supervise the CBN’s economic policy. That charge is not even worthy of engagement. While it’s true that Mrs. Ahmad isn’t the most qualified person for the job, she’s sure as hell qualified for it.

The fulmination of the second group is even more worrying because it merely scratches the surface of a deep, abiding problem in our region, which is the noxious fusion of disabling religious intolerance, literalism, and exhibitionism.

Religion in the Muslim north revolves around (1.) a sick, prurient obsession with the female body under the cover of religious decency, (2.) exhibitionistic preening of the rituals of religiosity without a care for ethics, truth, honesty, or kindness, and (3.) identity politics wrapped in and sanctified by religion.

You can lie, cheat, murder, rape, steal, and generally be a monster of moral perversion and you won‘t attract the condemnation of self-appointed guardians of religious morality as long as you observe the communal rituals of religiosity and mouth off familiar, stereotyped religious idioms. That’s why 200 tons of date fruits donated by Saudi Arabia were stolen and sold (during Ramadan!) by Muslims and there was not a whimper from people who get in a tizzy when they see a woman—however virtuous she may be—unclad in a hijab.

In fact, a three-term governor and serving senator from Yobe State (who introduced Sharia in his state!) was recently caught almost literally pants down—and with irrefutable videographic corroboration, too— in a threesome with two women who are not his wives in a cheap, grubby brothel. There was no outrage from the self-anointed moral police. On the contrary, most of them defended the senator’s right to privacy, and cautioned against exposing a fellow Muslim to ridicule. Between being unclad in a hijab and engaging in adultery—and being impenitent about it when caught, as the senator was—which is worthier of moral outrage?

On the other hand, you can be the very apotheosis of justice, truth, probity, honesty, compassion, etc., but if you don’t “perform” religiosity through your sartorial choices and through your public utterances, you’re the devil himself. In other words, religion is more about form than content, more about appearance than substance, more about cold structures than essence, and more about public performance of group identity than about the internalization and performance of genuine piety.

Every Muslim woman who falls short of the standards of sartorial modesty enshrined in Islam is invariably described as being “naked” and condemned as a “prostitute.” Such a woman’s moral character is irrelevant as long as she violates—or is thought to violate— this sacred sartorial code. But she can be morally debauched and be the proverb for cruelty, and she would be celebrated (or at least be allowed to live in peace) as long as she wears a hijab, knows her “place,” performs the identity rituals expected of her, and doesn’t make a public show of her debauchery. In other words, a Muslim woman’s entire worth is measured by her dressing.

Mufti Ismail Menk had these kinds of people in mind when he said, “When you see a female dressed in a manner that is unacceptable Islamically, do not for a moment think that she is lower than you spiritually. If you do that, you are lower than her. Believe me, that is the teaching of your religion. She might have a link with her Creator that you do not know about. She might have a heart that is tons better than yours. She might have one weakness that is outward, and you have 50 weaknesses that are hidden.”

The self-proclaimed male moral police who are fixated with what Muslim women wear and don’t wear won’t admit that if they, too, are judged by the standards and requirements of the religion they purport to defend they’d all come up short. All of us would. Most of them don’t lower their gaze when they encounter women (which is precisely why they pervertedly proclaim the “nakedness” of clothed women and assume them to be “sex workers”), they patronize banks that traffic in riba, have pre- and extra-marital sexual liaisons, etc. Why do they think their own transgressions are more tolerable and more defensible than a Muslim woman's choice to not wear a hijab?

This is not a repudiation of the dress code prescribed for women in Islam. It’s just an admission of the fact that we’re all imperfect beings. We all have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. It’s unfair to estimate people’s entire worth by just one weakness.

Mrs. Ahmad’s western attire might simply be what I like to call protective sartorial mimicry, that is, the survivalist instinct that causes us to dress in ways that help us to blend in with our immediate environments. Maybe she doesn’t even dress that way outside her professional circles. Most importantly, though, it’s not our place to sit in judgement upon the personal choices of a 40-year-old wife and mother who is almost at the pinnacle of her career.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Semantic Bleaching in English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Just like skin bleaching is the chemically induced lessening of the melanin of a dark or brown person’s skin, semantic bleaching occurs when a word loses or lessens its original meaning and becomes an intensifier, that is, a word that has no meaning except to lend emphasis to the word it modifies. The most common intensifier in everyday speech is “very.” The word does nothing more than add intensity to what we say. If I say, for instance, that “there were very many people at the party,” I’ve merely used “very” for emphasis, and nothing more.

So almost all intensifiers are semantically bleached words. Linguists call them semantically bleached because they often represent a diminution of their original meaning in the service of adding emphasis to the words they modify. Let’s take the word “very” as an example. The word originally means “true.” In fact, in the 13th century, the English word for “true,” according to Dictionary.com, was “verai” (which was borrowed from Norman French), from where it evolved to “very.” It shares lexical ancestry with “verily,” “verisimilitude,” “veracity,” etc. which all denote truthfulness. Although “very” still signifies “truth” in many uses, we often don’t think of “truth” when we say things like, “That’s so not very nice of you.”

Another common semantically bleached intensifier is “really.” “Really” originally means “in accordance with truth, fact, or reality,” that is, observable realness as opposed to imagination or fantasy. But “really” has now been thoroughly semantically bleached and is now just used for emphasis, such as when someone says, “Although he is not alone, I think he really feels lonely.” The fact of someone feeling “lonely” can’t be proved in reality by someone who doesn’t have a direct experience of the feeling. Although the word’s original sense still endures in everyday language, its semantically bleached version is now more popular.

Other routinely semantically bleached words are “actually,” “definitely,” “ultimately,” “wonderful,” “awesome,” “amazing,” “insanely” (as in, “insanely busy”), “outrageously” (as in, “outrageously cheap”), “literally,” (as in, “he literally stole the country blind”), “awfully” (as in, “an awfully great performance”), “totally,” “crazy,” “incredibly.”

Perhaps the newest semantically bleached word in Nigerian English is “fantastically,” which came to us after former British Prime Minister David Cameron called Nigeria and Afghanistan “fantastically corrupt,” where “fantastically” merely intensifies “corrupt.”

My reflection on semantic bleaching recalls a May 11, 2011 column I wrote titled, “Superlative Expressions in American English.” See it below:

Semantic Bleaching in American English
A favorite catchphrase Texans cherish about their state is: “everything is bigger in Texas.” Given Americans’ extravagant fondness for exaggerations, intensification, and superlative expressions, they should probably have a shamelessly immodest catchphrase for the whole nation that says, “Everything is biggest in America.”

Americans are the masters of superlatives and intensification. I have never seen a people whose conversational language is so full of intentional and unintentional exaggerations as Americans.
In grammar, a superlative is the form of an adjective or an adverb that indicates its highest level or degree. In the gradation of the levels or degrees of adjectives or adverbs, it’s usual to talk of the base, comparative, and superlative degrees. English superlatives are normally created with the suffix “est” (e.g. wealthiest, strongest) or the word “most” (e.g. most recent, most beautiful). But some words are by nature superlative and require no suffix or "most" to indicate their degree. Examples: absolute, favorite, unique, perfect, etc. Therefore, it would be superfluous (or, as grammarians say it, pleonastic) to write or say "most absolute," "most unique," etc.

So superlative expressions are boastful, hyperbolic expressions that sometimes have no literal relationship with the reality they purport to describe. In this essay, I identify the most common superlative expressions I’ve encountered in American English.

In contemporary American English, instead of simply saying something like “it’s really nice,” young Americans say “it totally rocks!” The “best experience” becomes “the absolute best experience ever.” Kids no longer just have “best friends”; they now have “Best Friends Forever.” There is even an initialism for it: BFF. (An initialism, also called an alphabetism, is an abbreviation made up of first letters of words or syllables, each pronounced separately. E.g. HIV, BFF, CEO). My daughter changes her BFFs every other week! “Forever” now has an expiration date.

On American TV it's now common to hear teenagers use “bestest” (a nonstandard word) to heighten the sense that the superlative adjective “best” conveys, as in: “we had the bestest party ever!” “Baddest” is another nonstandard superlative in American youth lingo. The word has been a part of African-American vernacular English (or Ebonics) for a long time. It’s now fully integrated into mainstream, mostly youth, conversational English. But “bad” here is not the absence of good. It is, on the contrary, the surfeit of goodness or “kewlness” (kewlness is derived from “kewl,” which is the nonstandard slang term for “cool,” i.e., fashionable, excellent, or socially adept) or greatness. So “the baddest guy in town” in the language of the American youth subculture means the best or greatest guy.

The intensifier “very” is now considered tame and lame in American conversational English. It has effectively been replaced with “super.” People are no longer just “very excited”; they are “super excited.” It’s no longer common to hear people being described as “very smart”; they are “super smart.” An alternative intensifier is “uber,” which is borrowed from German. It means extreme or outstanding, as in, “uber-hero,” “uber-smart professor,” etc.

 But it appears that “super” has also exhausted its intensifying elasticity. It is now being replaced with “super-duper.” It’s now typical to hear Americans say they are “super-duper excited” or that they have eaten “super-duper burgers.”

Perfect. In America, everything is “perfect.” During Christmas, New Year, Mother’s Day, etc. people get “perfect gifts” for their loved ones. When appointment times work well, it’s “perfect timing.” Things are not just “acceptable”; they are “perfectly acceptable.” President Obama once described high-flying young country singer Taylor Swift as a “perfectly nice girl.” She is not just nice; she is perfectly nice. Does that mean she has no blemish of any sort? Of course no. It only means “perfect” has lost touch with its original meaning.

When people respond to a question in the affirmative, a simple “yes” is no longer sufficient. They say “absolutely!” The response to a question like “did you have a good time there?” would more likely be “absolutely!” than the hitherto conventional “yes, I did.”

In America, routine, quotidian events are habitually called “one-of-a-kind.” On my daughter’s kid TV, programs are almost always described as “one-of-a-kind TV event.”

And “best ever” has become the default phrase for just about anything. My daughter calls me “the best dad ever” each time I give her a treat. Her “best day ever” is any day she has lots of fun. Now, Americans are graduating from “ever” to “ever ever.” An American friend of mine described one of my Facebook pictures as “my most favorite picture of you ever ever”! Well, “favorite” is itself a superlative word that does not admit of any intensifier in standard grammar. To add "most" and “ever ever” to “favorite” seems to me like imposing an unbearably excessive burden on my poor little picture!

 If an American hates this article, he would probably call it the “worst article ever written article on American fondness for superlatives.” If she is a teenager and likes it, she might call it the “bestest written article on American fondness for superlatives ever ever.”

The American fascination with exaggeration and superlative language is probably the consequence of the ubiquity of advertising in American life. Advertising traditionally engages in hyperbole, deliberate overstatement, and extravagant exaggeration. Now that advertising has become more omnipresent and more intrusive than ever before (this is no American superlative, I swear!) in American life, it is logical that it would influence their everyday language.

 Or it could very well be the linguistic evidence of the over-sized image Americans cherish about themselves. When you’re used to being the world’s number one in most things, it’s inevitable that it will reflect in your language sooner or later.

But the effect of all this is that it has blurred the dividing line between fact and fiction in everyday American life. I am now dubious of many claims here. Everything here is the “world’s biggest.” For instance, Atlanta’s international airport is called the “world’s biggest and busiest airport.” Well, it turns out that the claim is not exactly accurate. In terms of the number of passengers that pass through it annually, it is indeed the world’s busiest airport. But in terms of land mass, there are much bigger airports in the world.

A modestly sized farmer’s market here in Atlanta has also been touted as “the world’s biggest farmer’s market.” If it indeed is, then farmers’ markets elsewhere in the world must be really tiny.

Superlatives certainly make language colorful, but I worry that their untrammeled profusion in everyday speech has the potential to desensitize us to actually exceptional things around us.

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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Femi Adesina and the Godification of Buhari

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Dissent and criticism are not only core structural components of democracy, they, in fact, mark the difference between autocracy and democracy. But it’s precisely these elements of democracy that are in grave danger in Buhari’s Nigeria.

President Muhammadu Buhari has now been literally godified both by his supporters and by the people who work for him. Criticism of his manifest incompetence is now blasphemy in the Muslim north, and his critics are labeled “infidels” worthy of the vilest slanders and even death. A reader of my column once told me he escaped death by a hair's breadth in Bauchi when he brought out one of my columns to buttress a point he was making about Buhari.

Scores of people send me email and Facebook messages every week to say that although I give expression to the anxieties and frustrations they feel about Buhari and his government, they can’t risk “liking” or commenting approvingly of my columns on Facebook, lest they be labeled "infidels" or even killed. And smearing Buhari critics with intentional, libelous falsehoods is now a religious duty.

I don’t recall any moment in Nigeria's history when a political leader was ever deified and worshipped with as much fervor and religious excitation as we’re seeing now. Even otherwise intelligent people stand in worshipful awe before Buhari and lose their basic reasoning capacities when he is criticized. A northern Nigerian university teacher whom I used to consider a friend and who loved the choice adjectives I used to criticize Jonathan instinctually exclaimed “subhanallah!” when I expressed a critical opinion about Buhari. You would think I blasphemed God.

On September 23, Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina took the godification of Buhari to a whole new level when he told reporters in New York that if Buhari’s critics “mistakenly get into heaven, they will complain about God.” An exceptionally smart Nigerian medical doctor, whose name I will conceal for now because I don’t have his permission to reveal it, captured Adesina’s deification of Buhari this way:

“We apparently live in a time of perfect big men and their highly-inspired spokespersons,” he wrote on my Facebook timeline in response to my column on Nasiru El-Rufai. “Femi Adesina was so eager to present his boss as unchallengeable that he uttered a string of attenuated Kano market blasphemies: 1. that people who criticise his boss persistently could also criticise God (which therefore places his boss in divine territory), 2. that those who persistently criticise his boss will ordinarily not get to heaven (a declaration that only God can make), 3. that some undeserving persons may get into heaven by ‘mistake’ (a divine mistake is surely unheard of in our God-fearing nation).”

There is nothing to add to this thoughtful decoding of Adesina’s divine exaltation of Buhari except to say that it’s a rampant malaise that afflicts people around the president. Analysts sympathetic to the president who nonetheless recognize that he is failing as a president like to blame his aides for not serving him well. That’s an unfair criticism of his aides. Buhari, many of his aides say, is simply impervious to advice.

I don’t know if Buhari himself imagines that he is some unerring, superhuman creature that is beyond censure, but he sure detests criticism with the vehement self-righteousness of a person suffering from a God-complex. In an address to the annual national management conference of the Nigerian Institute of Management on September 19, 2016, for instance, he said what he needed from Nigerian professionals was support, not criticism. “I want to use this opportunity to urge other professional bodies, corporate bodies and well meaning Nigerians to emulate the kind gesture of NIM by lending their support to this administration instead of seating by to criticise every attempt at governance,” he said.

But Buhari himself criticized “every attempt at governance” in the past—from Obasanjo to Yar’adua right up to Jonathan. In fact, even after Jonathan reduced petrol price from N97 to N87 per liter in 2015, which was worthy of some commendation, Buhari criticized it. "Many people think it is a good decision,” he said. “But it is not. You think you are paying less at the petrol station, but you cannot experience much economic developments this way. Why? The monies that have been budgeted for education, security, constructions and many more will be diverted to pay for subsidy as it was never planned."

One year later, he hiked petrol price by a higher margin than any Nigerian president, and “education, security, constructions and many more” aren’t any better than they were two years ago.

What, if not God-complex, can cause someone who permanently criticized others to say he wants only “support,” not “criticism”? People around the president have taken a cue. They have learned to worship him and not tell him anything that would cause him any disconcertment. So stop blaming the president’s aides for his missteps.

The other day, my teacher, Garba Shehu, waxed lyrical about the “modesty” of the president’s Daura living room. That’s probably the sort of cloying public relations the president expects of his media aides. But those of us who don’t worship human beings are more concerned about the fact that the president has gone in the records as the only president to build a vanity helipad for his exclusive use in his hometown at the cost of millions of naira that could have gone to solve pressing problems for hundreds of people.

The Daily Trust of September 21, 2015 reported that government paid N60 million to farmers whose land was used to build the helipad. If it cost N60 million just to compensate land owners, imagine the overall cost of the project, which would be useless after the president leaves office. That’s the immodesty that is of real consequence to Nigerians, not the “modesty” of his living room.

No one could tell Buhari that building a multi-million-naira helipad in his hometown was wasteful and didn’t square with his reputation as a frugal, modest man because the man wants only “support,” not “criticism.” In other words, he is the source of his own godification. Anybody who thinks himself above criticism has assumed the status of God.

Interestingly, one of the reasons I was initially drawn to Buhari was that someone really close to him once told me he became intimate with Buhari because he always told him uncomfortable truths that other people were afraid to tell him. I was impressed. Anyone whose mind is broad enough and whose heart is large enough to not only tolerate criticism but to embrace it would be a good leader in a democracy, I said.

Now that he is in power, Buhari no longer welcomes or tolerates the criticism of this person. Like El-Rufai who spooks his critics with the metaphysical threat of death, Buhari and his minions can’t stand criticism. But democracy dies the day criticism becomes sacrilege.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Old Forgotten English Words We Should Start Using Again

Language is always in a state of flux. It hardly ever happens that archaisms stage a comeback in languages. However, lately, people have developed an inexplicable nostalgia for English words that have fallen into disuse. This trend started several years back, but last week stood out in the number of articles published on the Internet wishing that certain English words were back in our active vocabulary. 

This week’s column assembles some of the words some linguists are nostalgic about.
The first 20 words were provided by Lana Winter-H├ębert who wrote for the Lifehack website in an article titled “20 "Forgotten" Words That Should Be Brought Back.” The last 10 words were taken from a Business Insider article by Drake Baer titled, “15 olde English words we need to start using again.” Enjoy:

Languages are living things that shift and evolve over time. If you look at the history of the English language, from Anglo Saxon through the Great Vowel Shift to what we consider Standard English today, you’ll notice that it has undergone some spectacular changes over the centuries. Some basic words have stuck around through the ages, like “father”, “house”, “egg”, “boat” and so on, but just as new words developed over time, other words were discarded along the way.

Many others from Shakespeare’s time through to the early 20th century have fallen out of common usage, and we are undoubtedly the poorer for it. Here are 20 words that could only serve to add a bit more colour to our daily lives if they happened to come back into regular use.

1. Bunbury. Noun. An imaginary person whose name is used as an excuse to some purpose, especially to visit a place.

Example: “Auntie Jane the cottage dweller” was my go-to bunbury whenever I wanted to take a day off to go play in the forest.

2. Scurrilous. Adjective. The description of something said or done unfairly to make people have a bad opinion of someone.

Example: Mrs. Mumford had spread rather scurrilous gossip about Miss Violet in the hope of tarnishing her reputation. Honestly, who would do that sort of thing with a llama?

3. Gallimaufry. Noun. A hodge-podge, or jumbled medley (can also refer to an edible dish).

Example: Lydia’s casserole was a veritable gallimaufry of beans, raisins, cauliflower, sausage, cheap wine, and cabbage. Guests never asked for second helpings.

4. Thrice. Adverb. Three times.

Example: I’ve told you twice not to eat raw pork with mustard or you’ll get sick—don’t make me say it thrice!

5. Blithering. Adjective. Talking utterly and completely foolishly, OR used to describe a foolish person.

Example: The blithering idiot was blithering on about something or other, but I tuned him out.

6. Pluviophile. Noun. A person who takes great joy and comfort in rainy days.

Example: Your average pluviophile will be in utter glory when thunder roils, as she can curl up with blankets and books while rain pours down outside.

7. Librocubularist. Noun. One who reads in bed.

Example: When you’re married to a librocubularist, you can rest assured that you’ll have to compete with a stack of books for nighttime attention.

8. Febricula. Noun. A slight and transient fever.

Example: Attending the opening of Twilight’s 17th sequel gave Arabella a mild febricula, but the air-conditioned cinema interior cleared it up quickly.

9. Starrify. Verb. To decorate with stars.

Example: The student council would starrify the high school gym every year in preparation for the homecoming dance.

10. Sophronize. Verb. To imbue with sound moral principles or self-control.

Example: It’s vital that parents sophronize children, not just expect them to behave properly of their own volition—you know what havoc they’d wreak.

11. Mullock. Noun. Rubbish, nonsense, or waste matter.

Example: I don’t know what kind of mullock you’re gibbering on about today, but you really need to stop reading those conspiracy magazines.

12. Uglyography. Noun. Poor handwriting, and bad spelling.

Example: His uglyography was so heinous that his essay was used as kindling, but the flames extinguished themselves rather than be tainted by association.

13. Namelings. Plural noun. Those bearing the same name.

Example: There were six boys named Jason in that particular class, prompting the teacher to address them all by their last names. When faced with namelings who both answered to “Jason Birch”, she called them “Birch” and “tree”, respectively.

14. Ultracrepidarianism. Noun. The habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge.

Example: Child-free people who try to give parenting advice are often guilty of the worst kind of ultracrepidarianism.

15. Pannychis. Noun. An all-night feast or ceremony.

Example: Edmund took another energy drink, hoping that its caffeine content would help him survive this raucous pannychis.

16. Guttle. Verb. To gobble greedily; to cram food into one’s gut.

Example: The dinner guests watched in horror as Lord Penderquist guttled an entire roasted boar into his maw.

17. Snollyguster. Noun. A person, especially a politician, who is guided by personal advantage rather than by consistent, respectable principles.

Example: The snollyguster who won the mayoral election just lines his pockets with cash to support his drug habit.

18. Welkin. Noun. The upper sky; “vault” of heaven.

Example: Icarus would have passed through the welkin on his legendary flight, but we all know how that turned out for him.

19. Barbigerous. Adjective. Characterized by having a beard.

Example: I had wanted to compliment him on his fiancee’s beauty, but her barbigerous aspect was so dominant that I had to remain silent.

20. Eventide. Noun. The end of the day, just as evening approaches.

Example: Moonflowers only bloom at eventide, opening their petals as the sun slips below the horizon.

21. Overmorrow: on the day after tomorrow.

Example: "I'll have that report to you overmorrow."

Why: Overmorrow was in Middle English but fell out of the language. So instead of having this word, we have the wordy "day after tomorrow." German still has this very useful word: ├╝bermorgen.

22. Twattling: Gossiping.

Example: "I knew I was in for it when they stopped twattling soon as I walked in the room."

Why: Because 'twattling' is one of those words that sounds like the thing it describes: twattle, twattle, twattle.

23. Fortnight: A period of two weeks.

Example: "We have a meeting with sales every fortnight."

Why: Because biweekly is woefully confusing — is it twice a week or every two weeks? Fortnight — and its sibling fornightly — help cure that ambiguity.

24. Anon: Shortly.

Example: "I'll see you anon."

Why: Because it would be nice to have a classier version of see you soon. Plus it always sounds dope when Shakespeare's characters use it.

25. Antetaste: The opposite of aftertaste.

Example: "The opening band was an antetaste of the rock to follow."

Why: Because there should be symmetry in tastes.

26. Coldrife: Easily cold.

Example: "My coldrife Californian coworkers start complaining how cold New York is starting in September."

Why: Because there needs to be a word for this disorder.

27. Mugwump: Someone who acts like they're above conflict.

Example: "My sister always played the mugwump in family disputes."

Why: Because we need a word to describe the self-righteous condescension of the pacificist.

28. Zwodder: A hazy state of mind.

Example: "He was in a zwodder all day after last night's party."

Why: Because the word "hangover" is a catchall for all sorts of physiological debts we end up paying by pushing ourselves too hard. It would help to have more precise words.

29. Snollygoster: A smart person not guided by principles.

Example: "That snollygoster might end up in the White House."

Why: Because we need a name for the people who don't recognize that with great power comes great responsibility.

30. Bedward: heading toward bed.

Example: "I'm bedward, putting this group text on mute."

Why: Because it treats your bed as a cardinal direction. As it should be.

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

El-Rufai’s Morbid Fixation with Death of His Political Opponents

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

There is no doubt that Kaduna State governor Nasir El-Rufai embodies one of the most morbidly toxic strains of political intolerance in Nigeria. He exteriorizes his discomfort with opposition by literally wishing death upon his opponents or claiming credit for their death.

At a Kaduna APC stakeholders’ meeting last Saturday, he told political opponents that should they insist on fighting him, they would die like the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua did. “I had fought with two presidents,” he said. “Umaru Yar’Adua ended in his grave, while President Goodluck Jonathan ended in Otueke.”

Several groups in Katsina have taken this statement as El-Rufai’s self-confession of culpability in the death of the late president. This is, of course, an inaccurate interpretation of his words.

Apparently, El-Rufai cherishes the illusion that the late Yar’adua died not because he was sick, but because he opposed him politically. He imagines himself to possess supernatural powers that send his opponents to their untimely graves. This means, of course, that El-Rufai did rejoice when Yar’adua died since he thought he was responsible for his death, although not in a physical, corporeal sense. It also means that he fancies himself as some invincible, immortal man-god who is beyond censure, and who deserves only worshipful admiration from everybody.

This is dangerous and disturbing on so many levels. There are at least three reasons why this should worry us. First, that someone of El-Rufai’s exposure and education thinks the hurt emotions of his punny, fragile, insecure ego have the supernormal capacity to kill political antagonists shows the depth of superstition and ignorance into which he has sunk. I confess that although I am not a fan of El-Rufai’s politics, I used to give him credit for clear-headedness. Now, he has shown that he has a pre-scientific, atavistic mindset that makes him indistinct from the unwashed masses.

Second, it betrays the shallowness of his humanity that the only thing he thinks his opponents are worthy of is death. That’s an outward manifestation of a disturbingly murderous inner disposition. In hindsight, this isn’t surprising. This is a governor who endorsed, defended, and even celebrated the brutal, cold-blooded, and unjustified mass slaughter of hundreds of Shiite Muslims in his state.

Third, it seems to me that El-Rufai is suffering the early onset of a condition some psychologists call “megalomania with narcissistic personality disorder.” He obviously has grandiose delusions that lead him to think that he deserves unquestioned obeisance from everyone. He also thinks he has a special relationship with imaginary supernormal powers that fight his opponents to death. Those are classic symptoms of malignant megalomania. The American Psychiatric Association defines megalomania, which it also calls “delusional disorder, grandiose subtype,” as “delusions of inflated worth, power, knowledge, identity, or special relationship to a deity or famous person.”

Mayo Clinic, a go-to site for medical research, defines narcissistic personality disorder as “a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism.”

El-Rufai’s claim that Yar’adua’s death was the price he paid for opposing him politically, his oversensitivity to even the mildest criticism, his legendary lack of empathy (evidenced in his perverse love to remorselessly destroy people’s homes, the joy he exudes when people he hates die, etc.), and his exaggerated notions of his importance, for me, show symptoms of a man held hostage by megalomania and narcissistic personality disorder. And this man is scheming to be president. Good luck, Nigeria.

This isn’t the first time El-Rufai has demonstrated morbid intolerance of criticism. In 2015, he also told his critics to go die. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote about it in my November 1, 2015 “Politics of Grammar” column in the Daily Trust on Sunday titled, “El-Rufai’s Kufena Hills and Metaphors of Death in Nigerian Public Discourse”:

“On October 16, 2015, Kaduna State governor Nasir el-Rufai joined a long list of public officials who invoked bloodcurdling thanatological allusions to shut down criticism. ‘All of us in Kaduna State Government have sworn with the Qu'ran—Christians with the Holy Bible—to do justice and we will do justice,’ he said in Hausa during a town hall meeting in Kaduna. ‘We better stand and tell ourselves the truth. Everyone knows the truth. No matter the noise, the truth is one. And as I stand here, no matter who you are, I will face you and tell you the truth. If you don’t want to hear the truth, you can climb Kufena Hills and fall.’

“Falling from Kufena Hills is a chilling local metaphor for death. No one falls from a tall, steep hill and survives. That was why Sunday Vanguard of October 17, 2015 interpreted el-Rufai as asking his critics to ‘go and die.’ Although Governor el-Rufai didn’t directly utter the word ‘die,’ Vanguard’s interpretive extension of his thanatological metaphor is perfectly legitimate, even brilliant. It’s interpretive journalism at its finest. It helped situate and contextualize the governor’s utterance for people who don’t have the cultural and geographic competence to grasp it.

“Since anyone who jumps from the edge of a hill will naturally plunge to his death, it’s impossible to defend the governor’s choice of words with the resources of linguistic logic. Plus, text derives meaning from context. The video clip of the town hall meeting where el-Rufai enjoined his critics to go climb Kefena Hills and fall shows him in a combative and livid mood. He wasn’t joking. That’s why I think it is singularly disingenuous for el-Rufai’s media team to insist that their principal didn’t ask his critics to go die.

 “El-Rufai’s intolerance of criticism is particularly noteworthy because he is famous for describing himself as a ‘certified ruffler of feathers,’ and his political rise owes a lot to his trenchant criticism of political opponents from the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua to former President Goodluck Jonathan. That’s probably why he thinks ‘the truth is one’ and only he is its custodian. All else is ‘noise,’ and whoever can’t stand the one and only truth that only he embodies is worthy only of violent death. This takes arrogant discursive intolerance and rhetorical violence to a whole new level.”

Can you connect the dots between his October 16, 2015 utterance and his September 16, 2017 utterance?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

“Police is your friend,” “fire for fire”: Q and A on Nigerian English Errors

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter:@farooqkperogi

Question:
Is it “congratulate for” or “congratulate on”? In other words, should it be, “I congratulate you for your achievement” or “I congratulate you on your achievement”? A friend told me only “congratulate on” is correct, but I have come across “congratulate for” in many respectable places.


Answer:
It used to be said that “congratulate” only collocates with “on.” That’s no longer true. All modern dictionaries and usage guides now say “congratulate” collocates with both “on” and “for” depending on the meaning you want to convey.

When you want to send good wishes or expressions of joy to someone on the occasion of a personal milestone in their life, such as marriage, birth of a child, promotion at work, etc. “on” is the usual preposition that collocates with “congratulate.” Examples: I congratulate you on your marriage. I congratulate you on the birth of your child.

However, when you want to acknowledge an achievement or praise someone for a great effort, use of “congratulate for” is permissible. Example: I congratulate you for paying workers’ salaries promptly.

The distinctions aren’t terribly clear-cut, I know, but the bottom line is that both prepositions collocate with “congratulate.”

Question:
Governor Rauf Aregbesola changed the name of his state from “Osun State” to “State of Osun.” Is this change justified from a grammatical point of view?

Answer:
The short answer is no. But the governor is probably aping American naming conventions. In the United States, states are officially called “state of…” For instance, I live in the “State of Georgia,” not “Georgia State.” I used to live in the “State of Louisiana,” not “Louisiana State.”

Here, the name precedes “state,” such as Georgia State, Louisiana State, Alabama State, etc. only when reference is made to state universities. Thus, Georgia State is the short form of Georgia State University, Mississippi State is the short form of Mississippi State University, Alabama State is the short form of Alabama State University, etc.

Note that there are no federal universities in the United States. Universities are either owned by state governments or by private individuals/organizations. State universities that are located in state capitals are typically called by the name of the state in combination with “state” and “university.” (There are a few exceptions, though). For example, the State of Georgia has two big universities: the University of Georgia and Georgia State University. The University of Georgia is located in a small town called Athens, but Georgia State University is located in Atlanta, the state capital, which explains why it is called “Georgia State.” Louisiana State University is located in Baton Rouge, the state capital, while the University of Louisiana is located in the city of Lafayette. Both are owned by the State of Louisiana.

So, in the interest of clarity, “state of …” is understood to refer to states and “… State” (e.g. Minnesota State) is understood to refer to state universities located in the state capital.

I don’t see the justification for calling Osun State the “State of Osun” since “Osun State” is unlikely to be mistaken for anything.

Question:
Is it, “Police is your friend” or “Police are your friend”?

Answer:
The grammatically correct expression is “police are your friend,” NOT “police is your friend.” It is also “police are coming,” NOT “police is coming.” “Police” is a collective noun—like “people,” “cattle, etc.—and always takes a plural verb. Just like you can’t say “people is your friend,” or “people is coming,” you also can’t say “police is your friend” or “police is coming.”

There are many ways to singularize “police.” You can say “policeman,” “policewoman,” or “police officer.” You can also say, “The police department is your friend.”

Question:
Please point me to where you wrote about the expression “fire for fire.” I am the editor of a newspaper in Lagos and a reporter of mine told me you pointed out in one of your “Politics of Grammar” articles that “fire for fire” is Nigerian English. My search through the archives of Daily Trust didn’t bring up the article. If you can republish it, I and many people in our newsroom will benefit.

Answer:
The usual idiom is "(fight) fire with fire." So the preposition is “with,” not “for.” The phrase basically means to use the same tactics and strategies your opponent is using to fight you. If the opponent uses violence use violence, too. If he uses treachery, use treachery, too.

 Shakespeare first used this expression in his play titled King John. He wrote:
“Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire;
Threaten the threatener and outface the brow
Of bragging horror”

“Fight” was later inserted into the expression (first in American English and now in all varieties of English) to have “fight fire with fire.” Nigeria’s former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, distorted this Shakespearean expression to “fire for fire” in his infamous “Operation Fire for Fire” campaign, and “fire for fire” has now become a stock expression in Nigerian English.

Question:
If the sons and daughters of my siblings are my nephews and nieces respectively, how do I refer to the children (male or female) of my cousins?

Answer:
Your question anticipated an article I am working on. It’s about native English familial terminologies that are absent in Nigerian English. I will only give a short answer to your question for now. My forthcoming article will elaborate it.

The children of your first cousin are technically called your "first cousins once removed," but you can also informally call them your nephews (if they are male) and your nieces (if they are female).

Question:
Sometime back, I had an argument with one of my friends on how to use “at” and “in.” Can you tell us the difference between them?

Answer:
Both “at” and “in” are prepositions that we use to indicate location. Generally, it is understood in usage circles that “at” is used when we are talking about a point, that is, a precise location, while “in” is used when we are talking about an area, that is, a geographic area with an extensive boundary. So, for instance, we would say “I’m at the Abuja City Gate” because it’s a precise location, but we would say “I’m in Abuja” because “Abuja” is a huge expanse of land with an extensive boundary.

Following this logic, grammarians generally agree that a small town is a point and a big city is an area. Therefore, the preposition of choice when we talk about a small town is “at” (e.g., “his wife lives at Kenu”) while the preferred preposition to refer to cities is “in” (e.g. “I live and work in Lagos”). However, it is perfectly legitimate to use “in” to refer to a village if you have a sentimental attachment to it. Only people who have no emotional connection with a small town use “at” to refer to it.

But it gets even trickier. When we talk of any place (including big cities) as a point on a map, the only acceptable preposition is “at.” Example: “Dana Airline crashed at Lagos on its way to Abuja.”

There are also dialectal differences in the use of “at” and “in,” especially in reference to educational institutions. In British English, it is customary to say “at school,” “at college,” etc. while American English prefers “in school,” “in college,” etc.

“At” has also emerged as the preferred preposition when companies talk about themselves self-referentially. Examples: “We at Daily Trust question the notion that…,” “At Union Bank, our goal is…” etc. 

But it’s good to note that “in” used to be the preferred preposition in companies’ self-referential statements. The change to “at” is a relatively recent usage shift.

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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Buhari’s Obsessive Compulsive Runawayism

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

President Buhari is held prisoner by what appears to be an obsessive impulse to desert Nigeria when the going gets tough. On at least two occasions, he has publicly confessed to feeling the urge to abandon his mandate in midstream.

The first time he gave public expression to this runawayist emotion was in November 2016 when he addressed senior management staff members and “Senior Executive Course 38” graduates of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies who paid him a visit at the Presidential Villa. “Actually, I felt like absconding because 27 out of 36 states in Nigeria cannot pay salaries and we know they have no other source than to depend on salaries to pay rent and do other things,” he said.

He expressed his latest urge for runawayism when he met with traditional rulers in the Presidential Villa on September 11. “We are lucky this year that last year and this year the rainy season is good,” he said. “If it were not good, I must confide in you that I was considering which country to run to. But God answered the prayers of many Nigerians.”

The president might very well have been joking. He is, after all, famous for his inventive sense of humor, including creatively self-deprecating humor. But it is also true that human beings ventilate uncomfortable truths through humor. In fact, an English proverb says, “Many a true word is spoken in jest.” So it’s fair game to interrogate the president’s predilection for wanting to abandon the nation in moments of strife and uncertainty.

This is particularly troubling seeing that the president, in reality, appears to be more comfortable outside Nigeria than he is inside it. This is a president who will leave Nigeria for anywhere at the drop of a hat. He spent most of 2015 and 2016 traveling the world (for no justifiable reason, in retrospect) and a good bit of this year on “medical vacation” in London. So when he said (or, if you will, joked) that he felt like “absconding” after the enormity of the task he was elected to do stared him in the face, he wasn’t being faithful to the facts. He actually did abscond. How else would anyone characterize failing to appoint ministers six months after being sworn in—and leaving most governing councils of government agencies unfilled more than two years after— while aimlessly traveling the world?

And when he said he was “considering which country to run to” if the rains weren’t forthcoming, he also forgot that he actually did “run to” another country for more than one hundred days for a different reason. He went to London to get UK doctors’ second opinion on his already treated ear infection and, thereafter, to treat an undisclosed ailment—exposing Nigeria, in the process, to one of the worst possible international embarrassments any nation could face.

Given the president’s penchant for runawayism, it’s hard to tell if his long stays in London were indeed medically warranted or if he was just “absconding” or choosing to “run to” other people’s country because he couldn’t take the heat of governing. Plus, the president’s health has now become an effective national emotional blackmail tool: he “absconds” for days on end without communication with the people who voted him into power, allows morbidly ill-natured rumors about him to fester, then causes photos of him to be posted on social media, which inflames more ghoulish speculations, and then a stream of extortionately costly but pointless visits by government officials to London ensues, and, of course, the nation will be whipped into a frenzy of prayers for the convalescence of the president. When the president returns, poor, mentally low-wattage citizens, who are the victims of his government by “abscondment,” gyrate wildly in futile, impotent exultation. This melodrama anesthetizes the citizens and helps to conceal or excuse the president’s incompetence for a while, and life goes on.

This is particularly interesting because more than three decades ago, Buhari famously said, “This generation and indeed future generations of Nigerians have no other country they can call their own. We must stay here and salvage it together.”

Apparently, he never believed a word of what he said because in February 2016, the president told Nigerians in the UK that he had been using his UK doctors “since 1978 when I was in Petroleum.” You can’t “stay and salvage” your country, especially as a high-ranking government official or a president, by perpetually disdaining your “country's best hospital for medical care in Britain,” as the Los Angeles Times of February 20, 2017 said of Buhari.

Given what we now know of President Buhari, it’s evident that his 1980s patriotic proclamation was just hollow sloganeering. Recall that on April 27, 2016, the president also said, “While this administration will not deny anyone of his or her fundamental human rights, we will certainly not encourage expending Nigerian hard earned resources on any government official seeking medical care abroad, when such can be handled in Nigeria.”

Less than one month after this “patriotic” declaration, Buhari went to London, not to treat his ear infection (because, according to a news release signed by Femi Adesina, it had already been “treated” in Nigeria), but to have UK doctors examine his already “treated” ear “purely out of precaution.” Can you beat that quantum of hypocrisy and insensitivity?

What does it say about President Buhari’s interest in, and preparedness for, leading Nigeria that he loves to make glib remarks about wanting to run away from the country he actively sought to rule four times in a row? What sort of leader tells (or jokes to) his followers that he almost ran away—and actually does run away— when the country he is mandated to rule gets hot?

Buhari won election precisely because the country was in a terrible shape and people thought he truly meant it when he said he would turn things around if he was given the chance to rule again. If the country wasn’t as bad as it was in 2015, he wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in hell of defeating an incumbent. That was why he lost against Obasanjo in 2003, against the late Yar’adua in 2007, and against Jonathan in 2011.

To have expected that he wouldn’t contend with the depth of the rot he interminably whines about betrays a sad, embarrassing, and disquieting naivety that shows that he isn’t worthy of his mandate. He was elected to solve problems, not just to enjoy the perks, power, and privileges of the presidency.

Does the president, perhaps, imagine that the presidency is some sort of a retirement gift to him? Or that he is doing the nation a favor by agreeing to be a president—a weak, bumbling, divisive, ineffective president?

Sunday, September 3, 2017

When and How to Use “in” and “on” in Some Fixed Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Several readers have asked me to give them some guidance on when it is proper to use the locational prepositions “in” and “on” in certain fixed expressions. They asked to know the difference between “in bed” and “on the bed,” between “in the train” and “on the train,” between “in the street” and “on the street,” between “in the bus” and “on the bus,” between "on the airplane" and "in the airplane," etc. This week’s column answers these questions.



1. “In bed” versus “on the bed.”  “In bed” is the conventional expression in Standard English to indicate that one is sleeping or is about to sleep, as in, “By 8:30 p.m. all the children should be in bed.”  The expression can also mean sexual activity, as in, “He is good in bed.”  “On the bed,” on the other hand, merely indicates one’s location in relation to a bed. For instance, someone can sit “on the bed” or “lie on the bed,” which merely indicates the person’s position on the bed. It doesn’t convey the sense that the person is sleeping or is about to sleep.

 In sum, use “in bed” for sleeping and sexual activity and “on the bed” to convey the sense of being on top of the blankets of a bed— with no intention to sleep.

2. “In the street” versus “on the street.” The difference between “in the street” and “on the street” isn’t as straightforward as that between “in bed” and “on the bed.” Many native speakers interchange the expressions. But here is what the sensitive user of the language needs to know.

“In the street” is an older, more established expression than “on the street” when reference is to the roads and public places of a village, town, or city in the abstract sense, as in, “I like to go for a walk in the street every weekend.” In this example, “street” isn’t specific to any identifiable public road. “On the street” tends to be appropriate for occasions when the specific location of a street is important, as in, “we live on the same street.” Here, the street is identifiable and known.

The truth, though, is that in modern usage, both expressions can be, and often are, used in place of the other. My own preference is “in the street.”  

How about the idiom “man in the street” to represent the hypothetical everyday person who is a non-expert? Should it be “man on the street”? Well, both expressions are now usually interchanged in popular usage, and there is no reason to chafe at this. In fact, many prestigious dictionaries acknowledge the interchangeability of the expressions. It helps to know, though, that “man in the street” is the older form of the expression, and current usage still prefers it to “man on the street.”  A search on Google brought nearly 1.5 billion hits for “man in the street” but only 547 million hits for “man on the street.” 

However, evidence from the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows strong regional and dialectal variations in the use of these expressions.  “Man in the street” enjoys more popularity and acceptance than “man on the street” in British English. I found only 5 hits for “man on the street” in the British National Corpus. Of the five hits, only one usage is idiomatic. The only other idiomatic usage puts it in quotation marks and makes it clear that it’s an American usage (“I wish a prominent member of the American print media would present an open unbiased, informative ‘Man on the street’ issue, such as you did.”) The three other uses refer to a man on a specific street.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English shows a preference for “man on the street” but not by the wide margin we saw between “man in the street” and “man on the street” in the British National Corpus. It seems safe to say that “man on the street” first appeared in American English, and hasn’t quite become popular yet in British English.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the first recorded use of “man in the street” to mean the ordinary person dates back to 1831. “Man on the street,” on the hand, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says, dates back only to 1926.

It is also important to note that “on the streets” (note the plural) means being homeless (as in, “if you don’t pay your rent you will be on the streets”) or working as a prostitute (as in, “The government should devise policies to protect the girls on the streets in our cities”).

“In the street” (note that there is no plural) can also mean “without a job, unemployed,” especially in American English, as in, “After she lost her job at the ministry she was on the street for three years.” The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary says this idiom is attested from the “first half of 1900s.”

3. “On the train” versus “in the train.” When you’re traveling by means of a train, you say you’re “on the train.” That’s the fixed, conventional expression to use in all native varieties of English. Being “in the train” indicates your position in relation to the train (that is, that you’re inside it), not the fact of your traveling by it. 

Note that this is different from the idiomatic expression “in the train of,” which is synonymous with “in the wake of,” as in, “many people were rendered homeless in the train of the massive flood.” Also note that “in train” is another fixed phrase that means “well-organized” or “in progress,” as in, “The report of the recently concluded national conference is in train.”

In short, in transportational contexts “on the train” is the preferred expression. 

4. “On the bus” versus “in the bus.” The usage rules here are similar to the preceding one. It should be “on the bus” when you use the expression in a transportational context. “In the bus” is never appropriate when used in relation to transport. It may be used to show position such as being inside the bus.

You also you get “on an airplane,” not “in an airplane.” The same rule applies to bicycle. You ride “on a bicycle.”

5. “In the car” versus “on the car.” Here the rule is reversed. You are “in a car” if you’re traveling by car. When you’re “on a car” it means you’re on top of it. You also get “in a taxi,” not “on a taxi.”

A good way to help the reader remember when it’s appropriate to use “in” or “on” in relation to a means of transportation is to note the prepositions we use to get out of the means of transportation. You get “out” of a car. So you get “in” it. You get “off” a train. So you get “on” it. We say “in and out” but “on and off.”

Some Thoughts on Prepositions                        
If this column isn’t very helpful in its differentiation of “on” and “in,” it’s because English prepositions are notoriously tricky and can’t seem arbitrary. You can’t master their usage by holding on to a universal syntactic logic. You just need to learn their usage through reading good books and articles or by listening to the speech patterns of native speakers. 

In some cases, prepositional usage can be fluid, permissive, and inflected by dialectal choices (such as is the case with “in the street” and “on the street”), but in other contexts their usage is fixed in meaning and context (such as in the use of “on” or “in” in relation to transportational activities).

Saturday, September 2, 2017

JAMB’s Mediocre Cutoff: An Unconventional View

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

The Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) recently reduced the cutoff for its standardized admissions test for entry into Nigerian universities from the 40th percentile to the 30th percentile, and everyone is getting hot under the collar.

While I share the philosophical anxieties of people who say JAMB’s reduced cutoff (which is basically a failing grade by every national educational standard) rewards mediocrity, I disagree that UTME scores are sufficient predictors of success in undergraduate education. In other words, a lower cutoff isn’t necessarily indicative of a lower standard of education. As I will show shortly, there is absolutely no relationship between quality of undergraduate of education and scores in standardized admissions tests. In any case, JAMB says its cutoff is only a recommendation, which universities are at liberty to pass up.

Study after study in the United States and elsewhere has shown that standardized tests—such as the Unified Tertiary Matriculations Examination (UTME), equivalent to America’s SAT (Scholarship Aptitude Test) and ACT (American College Testing)—are not accurate indicators of academic preparedness for undergraduate education.

A large-scale 2014 study in the US, for instance, found that high school grades (equivalent in some sense to our WAEC or NECO exam results, assuming they are legitimately earned and not the product of cheating) are better predictors of success in undergraduate education than standardized college entrance tests, such as the SAT and ACT. “The study -- involving 123,000 students at 33 colleges and universities of varying types -- found that high school grades do predict student success,” Inside Higher Ed, one of America’s preeminent news sources for higher education reported on February 19, 2014. “And this extends to those who do better or worse than expected on standardized exams. So those students with low high school grades but high test scores generally receive low college grades, while those with high grades in high school, but low test scores, generally receive high grades in college.”

This finding isn’t unique to the United States. Several other studies elsewhere have affirmed that standardized tests for entry into schools aren’t always accurate gauges of academic achievement and aptitude. They are usually merely a measure of performance on the test itself, or of aptitude in test-taking, and nothing more.

That is why nearly 1,000 universities and colleges in the United States don’t require SAT and ACT scores for university admission. In the UK, only a small number of universities require subject-specific standardized admissions tests, usually for courses such as mathematics, English literature, law, and medicine. Most universities accept results from “A” level exams and school leaving certificate exams.

I am not by any means advocating the discontinuance of the UTME, although nothing would be lost if it’s discontinued. Nor am I suggesting that there is no link whatsoever between performance in the UTME and academic preparation. Of course, many smart people do well in standardized tests, including the UTME, but many other smart people don’t. It’s unfair to, as we do in Nigeria, institute the UTME as the only valid criterion for admission into higher education institutions. In other words, no one should lose a place in university solely because they performed poorly in the UTME, especially if they have excellent WAEC/NECO result. That’s my understanding of the spirit of the new JAMB cutoff.

I know of scores of people who did poorly in UTME (which used to be called UME) but graduated with high honors and went ahead to succeed in the “real world.” And that’s what really matters in the end.

Admission into universities should be judged by a composite of criteria of which UTME scores should just be one. WAEC or NECO results, essays, letters of recommendations from former teachers, and UTME scores should be equally weighted in admission decisions. A candidate who, for instance, has 8 A1s, a thoughtful, well-written admission essay, great recommendations from former teachers but a weak UTME score should be put on a par with a candidate who has a stellar UTME score, a mediocre but acceptable WAEC or NECO result, great recommendations from former teachers, and an insightful, well-written admission essay. And so on.

My point is that the current system for admitting students into universities in Nigeria is broken and is in desperate need of some radical reform.  It’s a system that suppresses talents, denaturalizes genuine educational pursuit, and overemphasizes the importance of a lone standardized, possibly defective, test.

I am aware that the Ministry of Education has recently countenanced the re-introduction of so-called post-UTME tests. But it’s an extortionate scam. Everyone knows this. You can’t revalidate one standardized test with another arbitrary standardized test. There is nowhere in the world that happens. As many people have pointed out, the post-UTME exams are little more than opportunities for universities to swindle students and parents. Insist that universities remit all the money they make from the tests to federal coffers, and I bet you that they would stop the tests.

If universities are truly interested in winnowing qualified candidates from a long list of applicants, they should start the process of constituting admission committees composed of both lecturers and staff from the registrar’s offices of higher ed. institutions. The committees, which should be recomposed every admission cycle, should draw up criteria for admitting students.

A good starting point is to consider recommendation letters and admission essays, maybe even interviews for courses that require it, in addition to WAEC/NECO results and UTME scores. Each criterion should be weighted.

I know this seems cumbersome and time-consuming. And, given our almost compulsive propensity for fraud in Nigeria, there is a potential that admission committees could become rackets to rip off parents and students. But this is already happening. The admission formula recommended by JAMB (which reserves quotas for merit, catchment area, educationally less developed states, and university discretion) is hardly followed.

What are the chances that admission committees would work or, worse, that insisting on a composite of criteria for admission won’t open the floodgates to all sorts of chicanery?

These are legitimate concerns, but the current system that stymies promising students who do poorly in UTME tests, even if they do well in their school leaving certificate exams, is worse than my recommendation.

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