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Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Origins of These Common English Words will Surprise You

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Several English words have complex, intriguing etymological heritage, as the examples below illustrate:

1. Alcohol: Although alcohol is forbidden in Islam (and Arabic is Islam’s holy language), "alcohol" traces descent from an Arabic lexical ancestor. But it isn’t what you think. The Arabic al-kuhul, from where “alcohol” is descended, didn’t initially mean a kind of beverage that causes intoxication; it meant “the fine metallic powder used to darken the eyelids.” It is derived from the Arabic root word kahala, which means “to stain, paint.” 

When the word first entered English in the 1540s, it appeared as alcofol, and meant “fine powder produced by sublimation,” ultimately from Medieval Latin where “alcohol” meant “powdered ore of antimony.” For several years since the 1540s, alcohol signified “powdered cosmetic.”

So how did “powdered cosmetic” come to mean an intoxicant in later years? Well, the semantic shift occurred around the 1670s. At this time, alcohol’s signification expanded to include “any sublimated substance, the pure spirit of anything,” including fluid matter. By 1753, the modern meaning of alcohol as a synonym for “intoxicant” took firm roots. It started as the short form of “alcohol of wine,” which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, was extended to “the intoxicating element in fermented liquors.”

2. Algebra: The word came to English in the 1550s from the Latin algebra, but Latin borrowed it from the Arabic al jabr, which literally means “reunion of broken parts.” The word was popularized in the 9th century by a Bagdad-born Persian Muslim mathematician by the name of Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi whose last name is the source of the word “algorithm” (see my four-part series titled “Top 30 Common English Words That Are Derived from Names of People” published on April 28, 2013, May 5, 2013, May 12, 2013, and May 19, 2013). Al-Khwarizmi wrote a celebrated book on mathematical equations titled "Kitab al-Jabr w'al-Muqabala," which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “also introduced Arabic numerals to the West.” Without Arabic numerals, complex mathematical calculations (and therefore science and technology) would be extremely hard at best and impossible at worst.

3. Checkmate: Many respected etymologists say checkmate comes from shah mat, which they say is Arabic for “the king is dead.” But that’s not entirely correct. It seems more likely that checkmate actually comes from the Persian (also called Farsi) “shah maat,” which means “the King is surprised.” Shah means king in Persian (Farsi). The Arabic word for king is “malik.” While “maat” means “dead” in Arabic, it means “surprised” in Persian (Farsi). Whatever the case, "checkmate" has Middle Eastern origins.

4. Bless you: An aggressive American atheist colleague of mine with whom I shared an office when I was a Ph.D. student used to resent people saying “bless you” to her when she sneezed. She thought the expression was Christian. She preferred “Gesundheit,” the secular, polite response to sneezing in German-speaking countries, which is also popular in the United States, especially among secular humanists. Well, it turns out that “bless you” is actually not Christian in origins. It came from European, specifically German, paganism. It originated from the German expression “blessen,” which means “mark with blood.” In German pagan tradition, as in so many other pagan traditions, blood symbolizes consecration, holiness, or blessing.

5. Cushy: This word means easy, soft, not demanding, done easily. So a cushy job is a job that is financially rewarding but doesn’t require much mental or physical effort, such as being a member of Nigeria’s useless National Assembly. There is a popular folk etymology that traces the roots of “cushy” to “cushion”— from the Anglo-French word “cussin,” which is itself derived from the Latin “coxa,” which means “hip.” But that’s false. It is the word “cushion” (a soft place where one sits with one’s hips, such as a chair) that is descended from cussin via coxa.

Cushy is an entirely different word that came to English via Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, which shares linguistic ancestry with Hindi, although it’s written in Arabic script.  In Urdu, “kusi” means “easy or comfortable.” It entered English during the First World War when men who served in the British Army heard it from Urdu speakers in India (before it was partitioned into Pakistan and India in the 1940s and later Bangladesh in 1971) and brought it back to their homeland as “cushy.”

6. Girl: Girl didn’t always mean a female human offspring. When it first emerged in English, “girl” meant any young person, irrespective of gender. It comes from the Middle English word gyrle, which meant “child” or “youth” of both genders. That meaning of the word can be gleaned from English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where reference is made to the “yonge gyrles of the diocese,” which would translate as the “young children of the diocese” in modern English.

7. Goodbye: This everyday farewell remark we utter when we depart from people emerged from a contraction of “God be with ye” (ye was second person plural pronoun, equivalent to modern “you.”) It became mainstream in English since the 1300s. There is a parallel example of the contraction of a phrase into a word taking place in contemporary informal English with “sup?” which started as “what is up?” then became “what’s up?” and then “wassup?” before morphing to “sup?”

8. Meat: Meat meant food in general, a meaning that survives in the adage “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.”

9. Mortgage: Mortgage etymologically means “dead pledge,” which is kind of scary. In Old French (i.e., the earlier form of the language spoken from the 9th to the 15th centuries), “mort” meant “dead” and “gage” meant “pledge.” This morbid sense of the word’s meaning survives in the expression “mortgage your children’s future.”

10. Sabotage:  Sabotage comes from the Old French word “sabot,” which meant a wooden shoe. During industrial disputes in factories, workers used to throw shoes at machinery with a view to damaging them. In time, deliberate damage to property came to be known as sabotage.

11. Silly: When silly first appeared in English lexicon in Old English, that is, English spoken before 1100, it meant “fortunate,” “happy,” “prosperous,” “lucky.” By the 1200s, the word came to mean "blessed," "pious," "innocent." The word changed meaning again, by the 1300s, to “harmless," "pitiable," and later "weak." The word’s current meaning of "feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish" started in the 1570s.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “Further tendency toward ‘stunned, dazed as by a blow’,” as in “knocked silly” started in 1886, and that “Silly season in journalism slang is from 1861 (August and September, when newspapers compensate for a lack of hard news by filling up with trivial stories).”

12. Sinister: This word for evil initially meant “left,” as in “left hand,” in Latin. The left hand was (and still is) generally thought to be weaker than the right hand. That’s why the opposite of sinister was “dexter,” which means right hand. That’s also why “dexterous” now means skillful, adept, expert, agile, etc.

Like most African cultures, Romans, influenced by Greeks, also thought the left hand portended evil and misfortune. That’s where the current meaning of sinister as evil comes from. Many thesauruses still list “sinister” and “left” as synonyms. A UK student who wanted to conceal his plagiarism of a paper through mindless synonymizing (called Rogetism, after the famous Roget’s Thesaurus) synonymized the expression “left behind” as “sinister buttocks” because the thesaurus he consulted showed that “sinister” is synonymous with “left,” and “buttocks” is synonymous with “behind”!

14. Tragedy: “Tragedy” descended from the Greek tragodia, which literally means “goat song.”  “Tragos” means “goat” and “oide” means “song.” Ancient Greeks thought the bleat of male goats inspired sadness.  I can attest to that. I am writing this column from my hometown of Okuta in Baruten local government area of Kwara State in northcentral Nigeria where goats are bleating everywhere in ways that inspire sadness.

15. Villain: In modern English, we know this word to mean an evil, wicked person. But it didn’t always mean that. When it entered English in the 12th century via French, it meant "peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel." The word’s roots are traceable to the Latin “villa,” which meant “country house, farm.” It later morphed to “villanus” in Medieval Latin and meant “farmhand.” That’s the meaning English inherited in the 12th century. By 1822 the word underwent a semantic shift. It started to mean the chief bad character in a film or work of fiction. Now it also means any evil person.  So the word went from meaning a farmer to an evil person in the space of about six centuries.

16. Zero: This word has a fascinatingly circuitous history in English. It entered English via French (some scholars say it’s via Italian, but both French and Italian are Romance languages that are descended from Vulgar Latin). The word came to Romance languages (that is, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, etc.) through Arabic by way of the Muslim conquest of Spain—and the cultural and linguistic reverberations it has had in (southern) Europe.

Ultimately, however, Arabic borrowed the word from Sanskrit, an ancient language from where Hindi and many languages in the Indian subcontinent are descended. It initially appeared as “sunya” in Sanskrit and meant “nothing” or “desert.” As many scientists know, there would be no mathematics and, therefore, no science and technology, without zero.

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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Re Islam, Homophobia and the Orlando Gay Massacre (II)

This is the last reaction to my column I’ll publish here. It has been edited for space.

By Abdulbasit Kassim

 As expected, Muslim scholars and pundits were on the defensive [after the Orlando gay club massacre] trying to shift the blame of the horrible action perpetrated by Omar Mateen away from Islam, the same way they did for San Bernardino, Boston, Woolwich, Chattanooga, Paris, Brussels and lately Magnanville.

 This trend has become a familiar routine. While I totally loathe the dehumanization of Muslims, I keep asking myself why the Muslim community should keep perpetuating itself in a state of denial. For how long are we going to keep claiming that the actions of groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda etc are theological outliers?

 Before you spit your tirade against me and censure me for being an orientalist in training or an apologist for Islamophobes, let me state it clearly I am very proud of my Muslim identity and I am an active seeker of Islamic knowledge.

[You are right that] unlike the Bible, the Qur'an does not prescribe any punishment for homosexuality but just like other laws in Islam, the ruling on homosexuality in Islam has been codified in the corpus of literature on Islamic jurisprudence based on hadith collections, Ijma and Qiyas. No matter how Islamic scholars in the West attempt to sugarcoat Islam with a cherubic bulwark, Islam, like all other Abrahamic faiths, advocates strict penal prescriptions on homosexuality.

Clerics should start approaching the topic of homosexuality from an empathetic standpoint by promoting compassion for individuals who struggle with homosexuality and finding possible practical solutions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I totally disagree that homosexuality is a choice even though there is no substantial evidence to claim that it is congenital. The ostracism, fear, depression, suicidal thoughts that pervade the hearts and minds of the people who face this conundrum on a daily basis, even in the Western liberal society, is sufficient to debar people from the lifestyle.

In fact, so many people go to the extent of subjecting themselves to rigorous therapeutic processes with often long-lasting mental and psychological effects all in a bid to conform to pressure from the society and their religious community.

 It is even worse in the Muslim community where the tendency for homosexuality is high as a result of the religion's strict rules on "Ikhtilat" (gender-Mixing). No one speaks about it but they are right there in our masaajids.

 The topic is treated as a cryptic and abstruse issue and even when it is discussed the clerics only focus on the punishment and damnation. The community does not offer any profound solution to individuals who on a daily basis struggle with homosexuality other than the advice to practice continence. It is only by focusing on this underlying issues that we will understand how the Muslim community is culpable for the action of Omar Mateen.

Let me explain the effects that the non-empathetic approach towards the subject of homosexuality has generated in the Muslim community. First, it has led to the increased visibility of Muslim clerics especially in the West who have attempted to reconcile Islam and homosexuality and promote an alternative discourse away from the discourse of damnation popularly promoted by other mainstream clerics who seem to care less about Muslims who struggle with homosexuality. Some of these clerics such as Daayiee Abdullah in the U.S., Muhsin Hendricks in South Africa, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed in France, El-Farouk Khaki in Canada and Rahal Eks in Germany do not only offer religious instruction to Muslims who identified as homosexuals but they are among the forerunners and advocates for "Liberalized Islam" which promote gender-mixed prayers and other actions that do not have any basis in mainstream Islamic theology.

Second, it has led to the increased visibility of pro-Muslim LGBT organizations such as MASGD in the U.S. formerly AL-Fatiha, Salaam Canada, Imaan in the UK, The Inner Circle in South Africa, Secret Garden Netherlands, etc. These organizations offer a community space for Muslims who identify as homosexuals to openly discuss their sexuality. These organizations have also attempted, no matter how eccentric their arguments are, to reconcile Islam and homosexuality with the support of the Muslim clerics mentioned above.

Third, it has led to a high rate of suicide among Muslim youths who do not subscribe to the "Liberalized Islam" advocated by the first two groups and at the same time cannot receive any help from the mainstream Muslim community. In their state of despair, these youths silently take their lives in order to put an end to their struggles. Although this issue is often not discussed, it is a pressing issue for those who research and document the lives of Muslim youths who committed suicide based on their sexual orientation.

Fourth, ironically it has also led to the rise of radicalism. This is the typology that Omar Mateen belongs. For the youths in this typology, they are often the victims of the religious damnation. Since they cannot develop the effrontery to seek help from the Muslim community, their little exposure to radical literature often makes them develop the belief that the only means to get forgiveness and earn repentance from their struggle with their sexuality is by joining radical groups in order to kill and become Shaheed thereby earning a ticket to paradise, no matter how fallacious their thinking is.

Lastly, it has also led to two types of marriages in the Muslim community which is known but often not discussed: a) Marriage by Disguise b) Marriage by Convenience. In the case of the former, the youth who want to be respected in his local Muslim community and not looked down upon, conceals his homosexuality and marries a woman. 

The majority of this type of marriages mostly end up crashing because the man, depending on his position on the homosexuality scale, often finds it difficult to perform his sexual role as a husband. Even when he does, he still sneaks once upon a time to engage in an amorous relationship with other male companions. The wife would be the receiving end in this type of marriage. In the case of the latter, the youth finds a female who is also experiencing similar struggles with her sexuality and they would both agree to marry in order to keep the eyes of their community away from themselves while they go about engaging in amorous relationships with their respective same-sex partners.

Kassim, a PhD student in Religion at Rice University, Houston, USA, can be reached at scholar.akassi@gmail.com

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Re: Islam, Homophobia, and the Orlando Gay Massacre (I)

My column with the above title elicited two kinds of criticisms. Some criticisms chose to ignore everything else I wrote and isolate the portion where I mentioned that the Qur’an does not prescribe a punishment for homosexuality. Others took issues with what they said was my impulsive defense of Islam in light of the Orlando gay massacre. Interestingly, both reactions were from Muslims. In the coming weeks, I will feature samples of both reactions. I will start this week with a reaction that provides justification for capital punishment for homosexuality. It was written by Usman Halliru, and has been slightly edited for space.

This was first published in the Daily Trust on Saturday on July 9, 2016

I recently read your article where you justified the baselessness of capital punishment upon homosexuals or lesbians. Although there is no explicit provision in the Holy Qur'an regarding the sanction for such offence, that the sanction has no genuine justification in Islam is a fallacy.

The primary sources of Shari'a are Qur'an and Sunnah. There are authentic Hadeeths where the Prophet (peace be upon him) was reported to have proclaimed the punishment for homosexuality.
The Sahaabah were unanimous on the execution of homosexuals, but they differed as to how they were to be executed.  Some of them were of the view that they should be burned with fire, which was the view of ‘Ali (may Allaah be pleased with him) and also of Abu Bakr (may Allaah be pleased with him). And some of them thought that they should be thrown down from a high place then have stones thrown at them. This was the view of Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allaah be pleased with him). Some of them thought that they should be stoned to death, which was narrated from both ‘Ali and Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allaah be pleased with them).

After the Sahaabah, the fuqaha’ differed concerning the matter. Some of them said that the homosexual should be executed no matter what his situation, whether he is married or not. Some of them said that he should be punished in the same way as an adulterer, so he should be stoned if he is married and flogged if he is not married.

Some of them said that a severe punishment should be carried out on him, as the judge sees fit. Ibn al-Qayyim (may Allaah be pleased with him) discussed this issue at length, and he mentioned the evidence and arguments of the fuqaha’, but he supported the first view. This is explained in his book al-Jawaab al-Kaafi’ li man sa’ala ‘an al-Dawa’ al-Shaafi, which he wrote to deal with this immoral action.

The scholars differed as to whether it is to be punished more severely than zina, or whether the punishment for zina should be more severe, or whether the punishments should be the same. There are three points of view:

Abu Bakr al-Siddeeq, ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib, Khaalid ibn al-Waleed, ‘Abd-Allaah ibn al-Zubayr, ‘Abd-Allaah ibn ‘Abbaas, Maalik, Ishaaq ibn Raahawayh, Imam Ahmad according to the more sound of the two reports from him and al-Shaafa’i according to one of his opinions, were of the view that the punishment for homosexuality should be more severe than the punishment for zina, and the punishment is execution in all cases, whether the person is married or not.

Al-Shaafa’i, according to the well-known view of his madhhab, and Imam Ahmad according to the other report narrated from him, were of the view that the punishment for the homosexual should be the same as the punishment for the adulterer.

Imam Abu Haneefah was of the view that the punishment for the homosexual should be less severe than the punishment for the adulterer, and it is a punishment to be determined by the judge (ta’zeer).
Those who favoured the first view, who are the majority of the ummah – and more than one scholar narrated that there was consensus among the Sahaabah on this point – said that there is no sin that brings worse consequences than homosexuality, and they are second only to the evil consequences of kufr, and they may be worse than the consequences of murder.

They said: Allaah did not test anyone with this major sin before the people of Loot, and He punished them with a punishment that He did not send upon any other nation; He combined all kinds of punishment for them, such as destruction, turning their houses upside down, causing them to be swallowed up by the earth, sending stones down upon them from the sky, taking away their sight, punishing them and making their punishment ongoing, and wreaking vengeance upon them such as was not wrought upon any other nation. That was because of the greatness of the evil consequences of this crime which the earth can hardly bear if it is committed upon it, and the angels flee to the farthest reaches of heaven and earth if they witness it, lest the punishment be sent upon those who do it and they be stricken along with them. The earth cries out to its Lord, may He be blessed and exalted, and the mountains almost shift from their places.

It is narrated from Khaalid ibn al-Waleed that he found a man among one of the Arab tribes with whom men would have intercourse as with a woman. He wrote to Abu Bakr al-Siddeeq (may Allaah be pleased with him) and Abu Bakr al-Siddeeq consulted the Sahaabah (may Allaah be pleased with them). ‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib had the strongest opinion of all of them, and he said: “No one did that but one of the nations, and you know what Allaah did to them. I think that he should be burned with fire.” So Abu Bakr wrote to Khaalid and he had him burned.

‘Abd-Allaah ibn ‘Abbaas said: The highest point in the town should be found and the homosexual should be thrown head first from it, then stones should be thrown at him. Ibn ‘Abbaas derived this hadd punishment from the punishment that Allaah sent upon the homosexuals of the people of Loot.
When Allaah mentioned zina, He described it as a “great sin” ( faahishah – indefinite) among other great sins, but when He mentioned homosexuality, He called it “the worst sin” (al-faahishah – definite). This suggests that it contains all the essence of evil and sin. End quote from al-Jawaab al-Kaafi (p. 260-263).

Of course, we should avoid extremism in matters of religion. At the same time we should not compromise the core Islamic tenets simply to console non-Muslims.

Usman Halliru can be reached at mygarki2009@gmail.com

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Surprising Link between Grammar, Magic and Nigerian English

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

There is something compellingly magical about proficient and elegant mastery of grammar—not just in English but in any language. Good grammar is charming. It makes otherwise banal arguments more persuasive than they really are. It also confers enormous cultural and intellectual capital on people endowed with the gift of its possession. But what do I mean by “grammar”? And what connection does grammar—whatever it may mean—have with magic?

Well, as I’ve pointed out in several of my writings, including my recent book on Nigerian English, Nigerians generally understand “grammar” to mean a combination of sesquipedalian phraseology and intentional verbal ornamentation. Nigerians would describe the preceding sentence as “full of grammar” because it uses ponderous, long-winded words where simple, everyday words would have done the job. But that’ not the standard definition of grammar.

In contemporary usage, grammar, according to Professor David Crystal in his The Story of English in 100 Words from where most of the data for this column is distilled, is simply “the study of the way we compose our sentences, of how we say what we mean and of the different effects we convey by varying the order of our words. In short, grammar shows us how we make sense. And the more we know about grammar, the more we understand how language works” (p. 73).

But grammar didn’t always mean that. It initially meant the systematic study of any written material. Then the meaning evolved to encapsulate “the knowledge that a person acquires through literacy,” according to Crystal.  This knowledge was the exclusive preserve of a select few—scholars, the clerical elite, astrologers, and magicians.

In time, grammar came to mean the study of the supernatural, of the paranormal, of occult arts. In other words, grammar and magic became synonymous. To be a grammarian was to be a magician. This was in Medieval Europe when Latin was the language of learning.

 When grammar entered English in the 14th century, it was initially written as “gramarye,” and meant “occult learning” or “necromancy.” In eighteenth-century Scotland, “grammar” was mispronounced as “glamour” (“glamor” in American English), and a new word was born which, intriguingly, has helped retain “grammar’s” association with magic spells, albeit in a metaphorical sense. When we talk of glamour we think of charm and allure, both of which are figurative extensions of magic.

Nigerian English “Grammar” and Magic
Today, although grammar no longer means magical spells, its artful use has the capacity to charm and excite the mind and soul. And here is where the Nigerian English understanding of grammar as deliberate ornateness in speaking and writing intersects with the earlier meaning of grammar as magic. You only need to read Wole Soyinka’s verbose prose or listen to Patrick Obahiagbon’s bombastic, if sometimes solecistic, speech to understand this.

These mavens of bombast manage to confer some veneer of grandeur and depth to otherwise trite and tired thoughts. Imagine for a moment that Obahiagbon says some of the things he says in everyday, conversational English. Most of us wouldn’t have known he existed. He would have been consigned to the obscurity that is the lot of most of his peers.

History of Bombast in English
The notion that extravagant ornateness of language elevates style, and even thought, isn’t new. Nor is it unique to Nigerian English speakers. Historically, writers in English have cherished the idea that the best way to show linguistic sophistication is to pepper one’s prose with exhibitionist Latin-derived vocabularies. The fondness for Latin-descended sesquipedalia (that is, “big” words) in English flowered in the seventeenth century, although it actually started in the sixteenth century.

English writers of these eras thought Latin “improved” English. They not only copied the structural features of Latin (such as the idea that sentences should not end with prepositions or that sentences should not start with a conjunction), they interlarded their prose with inflated Latinisms.

English playwright Ben Jonson captured the sentiment of his age best when he said, “Words borrowed of Antiquity do lend a kind of Majesty to style.” Antiquity means the period in history before the Middle Ages in Europe, but Jonson used it to refer to Latin words, which were (and still are) thought to represent high learning. One of the earliest pieces of writing to intersperse Latinisms in English was the work of a literary critic who condemned a poem for having “insufficiently vitality to preserve it from putrefaction.” It was a stylistically grander way to say the poem did not have good enough wit to make it stand the test of time.

Many writers in sixteenth-century England went into stylistic overdrive in the incorporation of Latin into their prose. A classic exemplar, found in Thomas Wilson’s 1533 book, comes from a letter written by a man in Lincolnshire, an agricultural county of eastern England on the North Sea, seeking help to find a job. He wrote: “Pondering, expending, and revoluting with myself your ingent affability, and ingenious capacity, for mundane affairs, I cannot but celebrate and extol your magnifical dexterity above all other.”

This pretentious phraseology reminds me not just of the famous idiosyncratic bombast of Onitsha Market literature but of my own high school youthful verbal exuberance. When I was in Form 2 (that would be JSS 2 in today’s terminology), my rehearsed and memorized chat-up line when I wanted to make advances to a girl was “my medulla oblongata was telefaxed by the aroma of your romanticism”! That was my grandiloquent way of saying “I like you.” Of course, that’s a farrago of high-sounding nonsense, but it did enchant and allure many girls who had the misfortune to come under its magical spell. So, you see, grammar, especially the Nigerian English understanding of grammar, is still magical!

Seriously, though, right from its nascence in English prose, highfalutin Latinate verbiage has attracted withering criticism from linguistic nativists and stylisticians of all shades. Linguistic nativists resented the Latinization of their native tongue. They saw it as a contamination of the purity of their tongue, as a form of quiet linguistic imperialism.

For instance, in railing against the emergent Latinization of English by the writers of his time, English diplomat Thomas Wilson lamented that if the pretentious writers’ “mothers were still alive they wouldn’t be able to understand a word of what their children were saying,” according to  David Crystal.  Wilson called grandiose, Latinate style of writing and speaking “outlandish English.”
In 1557, another English scholar by the name of Sir John Cheke advocated the rejection of all foreign influence, especially Latin, in English. “I am of the opinion that our tongue should be written clean and pure, unmixed and unmangled with borrowing of other tongues,” he wrote.

 Other critics called high-flown diction “ink-horn” or “ink-pot.” David Crystal explains why: “An ink-horn, as its name suggests, was a small vessel, originally made of horn, for holding writing-ink. The Latin-derived words were scornfully called ink-horn terms. The idea was that these words were so lengthy that it would take a huge amount of ink to write them. People who used them a lot were said to ‘smell of the ink-horn.’”

Centuries later, George Orwell derided ink-horn terms as “exaggerated Latinisms” or “pretentious diction” in his well-received 1946 essay titled “Politics and the English Language.”

But it is precisely these Latinate vocabularies that give English its magical appeal. We would never have science, philosophy, astrophysics, and other high-minded intellectual endeavors in the English language without Latin-descended vocabularies. Interestingly, even in their essays against the intrusion of Latin into English, Cheke and Orwell made copious use of Latin vocabularies, which Nigerian English speakers understand as “grammar.” In a way, then, it is the Nigerian English definition of “grammar” that has restored the word’s association with magic.

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Politics of Grammar Column

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Re: Ayo Fayose’s Smear Against Aisha Buhari and Imperative of Investigative Journalism

Given the emotive nature of the subject of last week’s column, I received a stream of responses that straddled the extremes of fawning commendation and feverish condemnation. But I will only publish a few measured response here. The first is from the Managing Editor of Premium Times, who pointed out that my column, following Ayo Fayose, mixed up of the Halliburton and William Jefferson bribery cases. How could I have missed this? I lived in Louisiana for nearly two years--and very close to William Jefferson's congressional district, which made me follow his trial. I apologize for this, but the substance of my intervention still subsists.

I read both your initial Facebook post and your today's blog post. Both are valuable feedbacks for Premium Times. Thank you for writing them. Let me say upfront that the paper's initial report is far below the standard the medium is known to have set for itself. More checks, and better editing should have been done. It is indeed a case that has sparked extensive internal review at the paper. But when professors like you rail at reporters, and editors, they should always remember that those who work in newsrooms are human, and therefore not infallible. Indeed, your blog post, also published in print by Daily Trust has shown that you too are fallible. You kept referring to the Halliburton bribery scam in your column. Yet, no Aisha Buhari was ever mentioned as far as that case is concerned. Fayose mixed things up, and you helped him further to muddle things up. The case he meant to cite was the William Jefferson bribery scandal which has no relationship with Halliburton. You made this mistake days after Premium Times did a fact-check to set the records straight http://www.premiumtimesng.com/.../205834-fact-check-in.... This teaches us that professors are human too, and can make mistakes, just like the folks in newsrooms.
Musikilu Mojeed, Managing Editor, Premium Times

“During the course of our investigation, we found that a property was sold on June 27, 2014 by Aisha Buhari to one Chiagozia Agbarakwe for $380,000. Evidence shows that that Aisha Buhari purchased the property in 2013 for the sum of $335,000, putting her in Fairfax County, Virginia, during that period.” - Sahara Reporters.

After reading the above Sahara Reporters investigation, I personally did further intensive investigations on this lead. The following are my findings:

1. That Chiagozia Agbarakwe who stays in Virginia, U.S. is the last known Nigerian to have a transaction with the imposter Aisha Buhari. He also knows her personally.

2. That Chiagozia Agbarakwe also has CRIMINAL RECORDs in the U.S. According to ATLASPUBLICRECORD, “Chiagozia Athanasiu Agbarakwe, a resident of Annandale, Virginia has been charged by Falls Church City County, with charges of Fail To Carry/Exhibit Reg Card and 42/25 Speeding Lidar.”

3. According to INSTANTCHECKMATE.COM, Chiagozia Agbarakwe who is now about 40 years old has about 6 criminal cases. “We found 6 criminal records for people associated with the name "Chiagozia Agbarakwe" in Virginia.” NOTE: The complete report of this records cost about $27.78 and I am not ready to pay for that.

4. One of Chiagozia Agbarakwe’s crime partners is Donatus Agbar! The partners’ criminal records are also well documented in the U.S. He may even be the imposter we are looking for!

5. Chiagozia Agbarakwe is also on Facebook with the same name. Chiagozia Agbarakwe is also on Pinterest with the same name.

6. At some point Chiagozia Agbarakwe was a practicing Nurse in the U.S. but his licence expired in 06/30/2005.

7. Chiagozia Agbarakwe has TWO possible addresses in Virginia, US is: a). 7404 Englewood Pl Annandale, VA 22003 b). 8073 Horseshoe Cottage Cir Lorton, VA 22079-2371

Chiagozia Agbarakwe needs to come clean and tell us who this imposter Aisha Buhari is and how we can get her arrested, ELSE all Nigerians at home and abroad should hold him as a criminal conspirator.

The EFCC, ICPC and DSS should investigate further through Chiagozia Agbarakwe and Donatus Agbar in order to bring the imposters to book. Nigerians judge for yourselves.
John MacIntyre

For me, the greater tragedy of this case is that you, an outsider and a principled critic of the Buhari administration, has done more to bring the facts of this case—and thus unwittingly defend Mrs Aisha Buharii—than people who are paid to defend the president and his family. Your clarification came on Facebook hours after the story of Fayose’s allegation against Mrs Aisha Buhari was published on Premium Times. It took more than a day for the presidential media team to react. And when they reacted, they basically repeated what you wrote. No new facts. No new insight. Just childish abuse. This has got to be the most lackluster presidential media team in the history of Nigeria!
Sabiu Umar, Kano

I read your entire piece. I am not sure why the title of your piece is divorced from the more measured questions in the body. Bottom line is you really do not know what has happened here, Why the drama and noise? All the Nigerian government needs to do is ask the US to clear the name of the real Aisha. This is a simple matter that does not require the time and resources of news reporters. It is public information. You can simply file a public information act request of the US government asking them to confirm or debunk this. Yes, you. I am actually beginning to worry about this because the Nigerian government knows what to do. We are not children.

Pa Ikhide

Sunday, June 26, 2016

“Face the Full Wrath of the Law”: Q and A on Nigerian, American and British English

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

In Nigeria, it is common for government officials and security personnel to say that criminals will “face the full wrath of the law.” I searched the expression in dictionaries, books of idioms and several grammar internet sites and haven’t found it. Is this a uniquely Nigerian English expression?

No, it is not a uniquely Nigerian English expression, although it is almost absent in contemporary American and British English. The expression "the (full) wrath of the law" is a translation from German. My findings show that it was first used in print in an English translation of German theologian Martin Luther's "Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians," which he wrote in 1535.

The German version of the expression, which came to us in English as “(full) wrath of the law,” is "vollen Zorn des Gesetzes." However, my former German-American student told me the expression has evolved since the 1500s when Martin Luther used it. “Nowadays, we'd say ‘mit der ganzen Härte des Gesetzes,’ which translates to ‘with the full force of the law.’  And yes, it means that someone is being punished with the full force of the law, in a judicial meaning,” she told me. “It appears as though the ‘wrath of the law’ Luther was taking about was referring to God's law.”

Biblehub.com gives more insight into the expression. Although the everyday meaning of “wrath” is intense anger, the site says, “The word ‘wrath’ here is to be taken in the sense of punishment." That’s precisely how Nigerian English speakers use and understand the expression.

I haven’t investigated and mapped the genealogy of the expression, but I am almost certain that it came to Nigerian English via British and Irish Christian missionaries. The fact that the expression is also common in other African English varieties like Zimbabwean English (but completely absent in the conversational English of native English speakers) lends credence to this.

Because, at the dawn of colonialism, the British Colonial Office was not interested in the education of the “natives,” Christian missionaries took it upon themselves to build schools and educate newly colonized people. So, early education in most of the former British colonies, especially in Africa, was not secular. Protestant Christian missionaries were so involved in British colonial education policy that it was customary to refer to them as Britain’s “unofficial partner” in the colonial project. It was probably why German Roman Catholic missiologist J. Schmidlin famously remarked in 1913 that “To missionize is to colonize and to colonize is to missionize.”

The surviving sociolinguistic remnants of this legacy are still evident in the archaic missionary (and biblical) English that defines the distinctiveness of Nigerian and African English. “The full wrath of the law” is one great example of that.

I want to know whether classmates, coursemates and colleagues are interchangeable. I saw them in a Nigerian newspaper. In my search, "coursemate" has no entry in my dictionaries, and colleague is not related to classmate. (2) GOSSIPER is found in many online dictionaries but not in my hard-copy dictionaries. Does that mean it is not a legitimate word? Many authors in Nigeria frown at its usage seriously.

“Coursemate” isn’t Standard English, although I've found recent examples of its usage in a few British newspapers, including an entry in yourdictionary.com, a user-generated online dictionary. An examination of the usage of the term across the world’s Englishes, however, shows that it’s most commonly used in Nigerian English. Malaysian English is a distant second. It is entirely unknown in American English.

“Classmate” is the more usual word for someone you go to school with. “Class fellow,” “schoolfellow,” and “schoolmate” are popular alternatives.

“Gossiper” is a legitimate word that has entries in several Oxford dictionaries and that appears in respectable usage. It is synonymous with “gossip” or “gossipmonger.” Curiously, though, I found no match for “gossiper” when I searched the British National Corpus, but found several references to it in the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

I personally never use the word, even casually, because I was taught from my formative years in Nigeria that it was improper English.

My tutor told me that American and British varieties of English are not allowed to be mixed verbally or in writing. Is this true?

Why not? Well, I think he probably meant that it helps to be consistent with one variety. But there are several American English expressions in British English and vice versa. And because American English is the dominant variety in today’s international English, it is really difficult to maintain a strict demarcation between American English and British English.

Several everyday English expressions started as Americanisms before being diffused widely in global English. Words and expressions like “radio,” “immigrant,” “squatter,” “teenager,” “lengthy,” “to advocate,” “to locate,” “to belittle,” “live wire,” “hot air,” “third degree,” “cold war,” “mass meetings,” “peace process,” “OK,” “movie,” etc. have distinctively American origins and were once derided as “horrible Americanisms” by British English speakers. Today, they are so integral to our everyday expressions that many of us can’t even imagine why the Brits had problems with them.

On the other hand, many Briticisms never cross the Atlantic, a recent notable exception being the sudden popularity in American English of the informal British English word “gobsmacked” after “Britain’s Got a Talent” internet sensation Susan Boyle used it to describe her unexpected success at the talent show. The word means “to be so surprised that you don’t know what to say.” After she told CNN she was “gobsmacked, absolutely gobsmacked” by her success, the word topped internet search terms in America for weeks on end. Now, I see that many Americans have integrated it into their active idiolect.

 However, some American expressions are still resisted by British writers and speakers. Expressions such as “OK, I guess,” “to check up on,” “to lose”; the sentence adverb “hopefully”; spellings such as “color,” “theater”; forms such as “gotten (British “got”), proven (British “proved”), “dove” (dived), “snuck” (sneaked); and grammatical features such as the use of “he” to refer back to “one” (One must support his team; British “one’s” team) or informal “real” (That was real good; British “really good”) have not made successful inroads into British English. So are numerous words and phrases like “sidewalk” for pavement, “gas” for petrol, “first floor” for ground floor (with corresponding changes for other floors), “faucet” for tap, “name for” for the British “name after” (as in, Washington DC was named for (British: named after) former American President George Washington), “wash up” for wash face and hands, etc.

When I say ''no amount of teaching, including a quote from his book, WAS going to change their mind.'' Is the above statement correct, or must I use WERE?

It should be "was." But if you had said, "no amount of teaching AND a quote from his book...," the right verb would have been "were." Phrases that start with prepositions like "including," "along," "with," etc. are not considered part of the subject of a sentence.

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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ayo Fayose’s Smear Against Aisha Buhari and Imperative of Investigative Journalism

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

Ekiti State Governor Ayo Fayose’s willfully false charge that Wife of the President Aisha Buhari is the “Aisha Buhari” implicated in the infamous cash-for-contract Halliburton scandal between 1994 and 2004 has animated a frenetic, impassioned conversation on Nigerian cyberspace. My intervention in a Facebook status update after reading Premium Times’ tendentious reporting on the allegation both (re)structured and intensified this conversation.

For the benefit of readers who are not on Facebook—or who are neither my friends nor my followers on Facebook—here is what I wrote:

Premium Times' reporting on Gov. Ayo Fayose's allegation against Wife of the President Aisha Buhari is reckless, factually inaccurate, and libelous all rolled into one. This is particularly disquieting because thousands, perhaps millions, of Nigerians on social media are ignorantly spreading a malicious falsehood against an innocent woman.

“Read the original New York Times story published on April 29, 2007 to know that the ‘Aisha Buhari’ mentioned in the corruption scandal ISN'T the president's wife. In the New York Times story, ‘Aisha Buhari’ identified herself as the ‘daughter’ of ‘General Muhammadu Buhari,’ not his wife. Of course, President Muhammadu Buhari has no daughter by that name. The said ‘Aisha Buhari’ is obviously a criminal impostor who has not the remotest relationship with President Buhari either by marriage or by blood. 

"Take a look at her picture, which I downloaded from the New York Times website, and tell me if she bears even the slightest resemblance to Mrs. Aisha Buhari or any of the president's daughters. This lady is a major-league scammer who has refused to reveal her real identity, and Premium Times failed to do basic fact-checking to confirm this. It took me less 2 minutes to find this out.

“In case you're not able to read the full story from the New York Times, here are excerpts that conclusively show that the ‘Aisha Buhari’ mentioned in the story is neither the president's wife nor any of his daughters. If the real Mrs. Aisha Buhari decides to sue Premium Times (and Ayo Fayose), predicting her success against them in the court is a slam dunk, as Americans say:

‘As for Ms. Buhari, who is living in Virginia, it’s not clear who she really is. For one, she is under investigation in Nigeria by its Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, said its head, Nuhu Ribadu.

‘Mr. Ribadu said he is uncertain if her name is Aisha Buhari, but he added that she is not a daughter of General Buhari. The former Nigerian ruler agrees.

‘”I don’t have any relationship with that Aisha Buhari,” Mr. Buhari said. “I don’t have any daughter called Aisha Buhari living outside this country. She is not my daughter.”

‘Mr. Ribadu’s agency has asked American authorities to arrest Ms. Buhari. That has not happened, but the Justice Department has an interest in her. Last summer, she testified before a grand jury investigating Mr. Jefferson, the congressman, who is suspected of soliciting bribes from American companies seeking business in Nigeria.’

“I won't hesitate to criticize Buhari (and his wife) if and when they err, but I won't tolerate irresponsible and malevolent smears on people's reputation.”

After my status update went viral on multiple social media platforms, the biographical information page of a passport belonging to an “Aisha Mohammadu Buhari” surfaced. People who shared the passport on social media said it belonged to the fake “Aisha Buhari” mentioned in the Halliburton bribery scandal whose New York Times photo I shared on my Facebook page.

I looked hard at the photo in the passport to see if it bears any resemblance to the photo in the New York Times story. Although I saw some resemblance, I frankly couldn’t say this with cocksure certainty precisely because the New York Times photo appeared to be a stealth photo that didn’t quite capture the woman’s full frontal visage.

I wasn’t surprised when the “Aisha Mohammadu Buhari” shown in the passport came out to forcefully disclaim any association with the “Aisha Buhari” associated with the Halliburton scam. “They are desperate to cover their dirty track and link my name with the scandal that they have to first of all steal my passport,” she said. “My passport was stolen early this year. And to give credibility to their story, details from the passport were used.”

This case is practically crying to be thoroughly investigated and unearthed by a smart, careful, transaction-oriented journalistic sleuthhound. 

First, the lady hasn’t said the passport is fake; she says it is indeed hers, but that it was stolen “early this year” “to give credibility to [the] story” that Mrs. Aisha Buhari has no connection with the Halliburton scam. Now, that’s an astonishingly illogical chronological inversion. Did the people who “stole” her passport early this year have a crystal ball that foretold that Ayo Fayose would accuse President Buhari’s wife of complicity in the Halliburton scandal in June 2016 and therefore stole her passport in readiness for this?

Second, the biographical information contained in the passport indicates that the said “Aisha Mohammadu Buhari” was born in Daura. Yes, Daura in Katsina State—President Buhari’s hometown. Is that a coincidence? Does anyone in Daura know the woman shown in the photo? She said she was born on August 4, 1975. Who are her parents in Daura? This is easily verifiable information because Daura is a small town.

Third, does anyone in Daura know any “Aisha Mohammadu Buhari” who lives in the Washington DC area, that is, Washington DC itself, Virginia, or Maryland? This should also be easy to verify because I don’t imagine that there are many Daura indigenes who live in the United States given that the United States has historically not been a destination of choice for northern Nigerians.

“Aisha Mohammadu Buhari’s” place of residence in the United States is particularly curious because the New York Times story of 2007 described the “Aisha Buhari” implicated in the Halliburton scandal as “living in Virginia,” which is contiguous with Washington, DC. She renewed her Nigerian passport in 2012 in Washington DC, indicating that she most likely lives around the area. (Virginia and Maryland are to Washington DC what Niger State and Nassarawa State are to Abuja.)

Fourth, what are the odds that a lady who claims to be born in Daura to a “Mohammadu Buhari” isn’t impersonating the most famous Buhari from that town? (By the way, President Buhari insists on his name being spelled as “Muhammadu”—and not any other variant. If “Aisha Mohammadu Buhari” was attempting to appropriate the president’s name, she obviously didn’t get the memo that Buhari resents his name being spelled in any variant other than “Muhammadu”).

Finally, since we have information that an “Aisha Buhari” testified before a US grand jury in 2006, it is entirely possible to ascertain her (photographic) identity from that testimony. Plus, New York Times’ Michael Temchine who took the stealth photo of “Aisha Buhari” in 2007 in Virginia with the caption “Aisha Buhari has claimed that she is the daughter of the former military ruler of Nigeria, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari” should be able to give us insights into the real identity of the scammer pretending to be “Aisha Buhari” that he photographed.

Premium Times and Sahara Reporters should be able to investigative the US angle of this conundrum. They have the resources and contacts to do it.

Related Article:

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Islam, Homophobia, and the Orlando Gay Massacre

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

A few weeks before Afghan-American psychopathic terrorist Omar Mateen murdered 50 people and injured 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, I was involved in an email dialogue with a group of conservative Americans over homosexuality and women’s rights in Islam.

The conversation was instigated by a cheeky, if ignorant, conservative cartoon that was intended to poke fun at Muslims and American liberals. The cartoon basically implied that the punishment for homosexuality in Islam is death by hanging and that women have no rights in Islam but that naïve, oversensitive American liberals who mollycoddle every marginal group in the country will never have the nerve to condemn these retrograde values unless they are identified with conservative Republicans.
Omar Mateen
 In the cartoon, a man strikes up a conversation with a liberal American woman. “I don’t believe that women have any rights, and I think gays should be hanged,” he says.

“Wow, what a primitive asshole you are! You must be a Republican,” the liberal American woman says in response.

“No, actually, I am a Muslim and those are my religious beliefs,” the man says.

“Oh! I am sorry! I apologize! I hope you don’t think I’m Islamophobic!” the liberal American woman says.

People on the email list, almost all of whom were white American conservatives, got a kick out of the cartoon. It reinforced their prejudices. It gave comfort to the ethnocentric biases they cherish about Muslims. My friend, who is also a white American conservative, copied me on the email precisely because he knows me to be politically liberal and culturally Muslim.

I initially chose to ignore the cartoon. I thought my intervention wouldn’t do much to persuade these cognitively simple American conservatives to abandon the prejudices that have found homes in their hearts and minds. But something told me to intervene. So I did.

I hit the “reply all” button and composed this response: “I know this is just a cartoon whose goal is merely to give us cause for a little chuckle, but its premise is too factually inaccurate to be left unchallenged. Muslims don't believe women have no rights, and the punishment for homosexuality in Islam isn't death by hanging.

“Muslim women have been entitled to inheritance, for instance, since the 7th century when most parts of the world treated women as property. This right is enshrined in the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book…. Of course, there is no denying that many Muslim women are oppressed in many Muslim societies, but Muslim women have way more scripturally codified rights in Islam than many non-Muslims are aware of.

“As for hanging homosexuals, the Qur'an has not prescribed any punishment, much less the punishment of ‘hanging,’ for homosexuality; it only condemns it. However, some Muslim theologians over the years have ruled that homosexuals should be ‘executed.’ Others say they should be ‘stoned.’ Yet others say they should be thrown from a high building. But all agree that these harsh penal prescriptions have no doctrinal basis in the Muslim holy book. No homosexuals were ever punished, much less executed, during the lifetime of the prophet of Islam, leading some Muslim scholars to maintain that there is no scripturally sanctioned punishment for homosexuality in Islam.

“The Bible, on the other hand, is unambiguous on the punishment for homosexuality. According to Leviticus 20:13, ‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.’”

Nobody responded. I don’t know why. Perhaps they looked up my claims and found them to be accurate. Unfortunately, about two weeks after this, Omar Mateen, who was apparently a closet gay, murdered 50 gay people in cold blood for no reason other than that they were gays. And both he and others attributed this barbarous mass slaughter to inspiration from his Muslim faith.

While I was ruminating over this senseless mass murder of innocents and my email correspondence with the conservative Americans on the position of Islam and Christianity regarding punishment for homosexuality, I came across the news story of a pastor called Steven Anderson who celebrated and justified Mateen’s mass murder of gay people in Orlando.

In a sermon posted on YouTube, Pastor Anderson said, “The good news is that there’s 50 less pedophiles in this world, because, you know, these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles.” Then he adds: “I don’t believe it’s right for us to just be a vigilante… But I will say this: The Bible says that homosexuals should be put to death, in Leviticus 20:13….[T]hese people all should have been killed, anyway, but they should have been killed through the proper channels, as in they should have been executed by a righteous government that would have tried them, convicted them, and saw them executed. Because, in Leviticus 20:13, God’s perfect law, he …put the death penalty on homosexuality. That’s what the Bible says, plain and simple.”

This wasn’t the first time he advocated the murder of gays. In a December 1, 2014 sermon (which is still on YouTube), he told his congregation that “If you executed the homos like God recommends, you wouldn’t have all this AIDS running rampant.”

The wacky Westboro Baptist Church also celebrated the mass murder of gays in Orlando and even said, in a statement, that “God sent the shooter” to destroy “Sodom America.” Similarly, a pastor in Sacramento, California, according to a June 14, 2016 story in RawStory.com, said this to his flock in the aftermath of the shooting: “Hey, are you sad that 50 pedophiles were killed today? No … I think that’s great. I think that helps society. I think Orlando, Florida’s a little safer tonight…. The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die.” (Raw Story chronicled other “Christian leaders [who] showed their love by celebrating the Orlando nightclub massacre”).

Now, what am I getting at? There is always the potential for murderous extremism in the lunatic fringes of religions, including Islam and Christianity. The difference is that in contemporary society there is institutional and cultural restraint to act out violent religion-inspired fantasies in the West, while there is little or none in most parts of the Muslim world.

Although the Bible sanctions the murder of homosexuals, the worst that homosexuals have suffered in the hands of Christian fundamentalists is rhetorical violence. And while there is no punishment for homosexuality in the Qur’an, it’s easy for extremists in Islam to invoke weak hadiths and questionable theological arguments to commit mass murder.

In a strange way, the conservative cartoon whose intent is to mock Muslims perfectly captures the paradoxical unity in extremism between culturally conservative Republicans (who are often fundamentalist Christians) and Muslim extremists. The gay mass murder and its aftermath prove this.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

“In all ramifications,” “Happy iftar”: Q and A on Nigerian and Global English Usage

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

How do I say "barka da shan ruwa" in English? Can I simply say "Happy iftaar?” But then I know "iftaar" is an Arabic word.

Someone asked a similar question years ago. My response to your question will draw from the response I gave then. There are many expressions that are simply untranslatable to other languages because of the vastness of the socio-cultural differences between the languages. “Sannu da shan ruwa” or “barka da shan ruwa” is one such expression.

A literal translation of sannu da shan ruwa (which would be “greeting on drinking water”) makes absolutely no sense in English, and an idiomatic translation of the expression in English is impossible. So if I were to meet a native English speaker who is a Muslim and I need to greet him or her after iftar, I would simply say "sannu da shan ruwa” (or, if I want to be linguistically nationalistic, I would say “bese ka noru,” which is the literal and idiomatic Baatonu equivalent to the Hausa sannu da shan ruwa) and explain what the expression means instead of trying to get an English equivalent for it, because it doesn't exist.

It is conceivable, however, that in the near future, if enough Hausa people live in environments where English is a native language, these kinds of unique socio-cultural phrases will be literally translated into English and adopted by the speakers—if such phrases fill a cultural and socio-linguistic void. That was what happened with the expression “long time no see.” It is a direct translation from Chinese, which makes no grammatical sense in English.

Another example is the phrase “enjoy!” often uttered in (American) airlines and restaurants after people are served a meal. It’s an attempt to translate the French “bon appetit,” which would literally translate as “good appetite” in English, but which actually means “enjoy your meal.” It’s a unique French sociolinguistic quiddity that English speakers now have a need to mimic because of French cultural influence. (Native English speakers don’t traditionally utter any special expression before meals).

Nevertheless, it might help to know that English-speaking American Muslims usually say “happy iftar,” or “wish you a joyous iftar,” during the feast after fast. Thankfully, “iftar” has entered American English lexicon because of the annual White House Iftar Dinner started by Hillary Clinton in 1996 when she was First Lady.
Obama hosts Annual White House Iftar Dinner
Many thanks for your articles which I have always found refreshing and enlightening. I would like to know if the word 'counsel' (as in lawyer) can be pluralised with the addition of an 's.' A colleague of mine insisted it cannot. What is the true position?

It is true that "counsel" is an invariably plural noun, which is treated as an uncountable noun that does not admit of an “s” to form a plural like "news," "advice," “equipment,” “furniture,” etc. If you want to pluralize it, say "lawyers" or "attorneys." But different groups of lawyers can be called counsels.

Can you tell me why the article "an" is used for acronyms that don’t start with a vowel? For example, a recent New York Times article used "an SEC...." instead of “a SEC…” even though “s” is a consonant.

It's because what determines whether we use “an” or “a” before nouns and acronyms or initialisms is the sound of the first alphabet, not the alphabet itself. SEC is pronounced “es-ee-see.” That means the first sound is the vowel "e," which justifies the use of the indefinite article "an." In other words, once the first sound is a vowel, it must be preceded by “an.”

So it’s “an NDA graduate,” (not “a NDA graduate”-- even though “n” is a consonant-- because “N” is pronounced “en”), an “MC at a ceremony,” (not “a MC at a ceremony”), “an SUV” (not “a SUV”).

Also note that it’s “a UAE citizen” (not “an UAE citizen” even though the alphabet “u” is a vowel), “a US citizen,” (not “an US citizen”), etc. It's for the same reason that it’s "a university," not "an university," “a unicorn,” not “an unicorn.” But it’s “an umbrella,” not “a umbrella” because the “u” in umbrella is not pronounced “yoo”—like it is in “university” and “unicorn.”

In wishing people happy birthdays, many Nigerians say they wish celebrants "many happy returns." I suspect that it is incorrect, that it is nonstandard English. Am I right?

No, you are not right. "Many happy returns" is Standard English. It is also sometimes rendered as “many happy returns of the day.” According to the Phrase Finder, “Since the 18th century this has been used as a salutation to offer the hope that a happy day being marked would recur many more times. It is now primarily used on birthdays; prior to the mid 19th century it was used more generally, at any celebratory or festive event.”

"I, Najatu Muhammad, wishes to thank you so much for considering me worthy of being appointed the chairperson…" Is the above statement correct and why? I thought it should be "I, Najatu Muhammad WISH....”

You are right. “I” is the subject of the sentence, and “I” always agrees with a plural verb. Thus, it should be “I, Najatu Muhammad wish to…” However, if the sentence had been “Najatu Muhammad wishes to…” it would have been correct because the subject would be “Najatu Muhammad,” which is a singular subject.

The same principle applies to the singular “you.” You don’t say “You is a kind person”; you say “you are a kind person” even though you are making reference to a singular “you.” In many nonstandard English dialects in Britain and America, however, “you” and “I” agree with singular verbs.

I think it a complete usage error when Nigerians say ''in all ramifications.'' The word ''ramification'' means an unwelcome consequence. I personally have never seen the word used in this (Nigerian) way in countries where English is spoken as a native language.

You are right. A search through the Corpus of Global Web-Based English turned up 101 matches for the phrase “in all ramifications.” Of this, 82 were from Nigerian English, 13 from Ghanaian English, 2 from British English, and one each from Kenyan, Indian, and Canadian English.

Ramification is a derivative of “ramify,” which literally means to grow branches. So ramification can mean branches, an arrangement of branching parts, units of a complex structure, etc. as in, "he broke off one of the ramifications." I think when Nigerian English speakers say “in all ramifications” to mean “in all aspects,” or “in all dimensions,” they are metaphorically extending the literal meaning of ramification (i.e., the branches of a tree). Although the usage is unidiomatic and nonstandard, I think it is legitimate. Of course, you're right that “ramifications” (note that it’s often pluralized) is widely understood among native English speakers to mean an "unwelcome consequence,” as in, “The murder of the soldier is bound to have grave ramifications for the community.”

I am an academic with background in the natural sciences. I read newspapers a lot, do review and also publish articles in scientific journals. Your column has been of immense help to me in understanding English usage. I have a challenge, viz: Is it wrong to begin a sentence with a number? For example, are these sentences correct:  1.25m people die in road crashes...', '7 die in Lagos..' and '9 million naira..' etc.

Thanks for your kind words. There is nothing grammatically wrong with starting a sentence with a number. However, many style guides discourage it. So, to be safe, try to avoid starting sentences with numbers. Either write the numbers in words when they begin a sentence or let a phrase precede them, such as, "Authorities said 1.25 million people die in road crashes."

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