"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Q and A on English Usage in Politics, Elections, Ethnic Descriptions, and Dialectal Variation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

What is the difference between a “president-elect” and an “elected president”? Is it correct to say someone has “conceded defeat” or “conceded victory”? What do you call the husband of a female governor or president? Yoruba people call themselves a “race”? Is that correct? Is it “elder brother” or “older brother”? For answers to these and other questions, read on:

I read your “Common election-related grammatical errors Nigerian journalists and politicians make” in the Sunday Trust of 12 April 2014 and loved it. I have another politics-related grammar question. What is the difference between a president-elect and an elected president? Is president-elect, in fact, Standard English?

“President-elect” is a Standard English expression. It means someone who has won election as president but has not yet been sworn in, such as General Muhammadu Buhari. An elected president, on the other hand, is someone who has been elected, not appointed, a president. Goodluck Jonathan, Barack Obama, etc. are elected presidents. The late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was a president, but he was not an elected president. Several other countries in the world that practice parliamentary democracy have presidents who are not elected and who are merely symbolic heads of governments.

Because Nigeria’s First Republic president was not elected and therefore lacked substantive powers, it became necessary to prefix the adjective “executive” before “president” in the Second Republic to show that the president was an elected president with substantive, executive powers, not a ceremonial figurehead. I should add that “executive president” isn’t a uniquely Nigerian English coinage, but “executive governor” is.

Thank you for all your enlightening articles. I just read your piece titled "Common election- related grammatical errors Nigerian journalists and Politicians make." Since President Jonathan conceded to General Buhari, Nigerians have been talking and writing about “conceding defeat.” Some have written about “conceding victory.” Which of the two versions of the statement is correct?

Concede means to acknowledge defeat, so "concede defeat" is, in fact, unnecessarily repetitive, although it is understandable. But “concede victory” makes no sense at all.

If the wife of a president or a governor is called a First Lady what do you call the husband of a female president or governor?

Americans formally call the husband of a female governor the “First Gentleman.” They also informally call him the “First Dude.” The husband of former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska was often called the “First Dude” in the media. He, too, said he preferred the term to “First Gentleman,” and that he would have liked to be called the “First Dude” if his wife had won election as vice president to John McCain in 2008. (“Dude” is an informal American English term for “man.”)

Since America has never had a female president, there is no precedent for a “First Gentleman” in the White House. That could change in 2016 if Hillary Clinton becomes America’s first female president.

It is entirely possible that Bill Clinton would choose to be called something other than “First Gentleman.” In 2007, while speaking with people from the UK, he joked that he could be called the “First Laddie.” (In UK English, laddie means a male child, and is often used as a form of address, as in “come here, laddie). “Lad,” of course, is an informal term for man or boy in all varieties of English, and the UK “laddie” is derived from it.

You’ve consistently made a great case for why “tribe” is an inappropriate term for non-Western ethnicities. I have stopped using the word since I first read it in your column some 6 years ago. My question is, what do you have to say about the practice of Yoruba people referring to their ethnic group as a “race”? Is that accurate? Aren’t Yoruba people a subset of the larger black race?

Although modern popular usage privileges the notion of race as the differentiation of people based on color and geographic location (as in “black Negroids,” “white Caucasians,” “red” “yellow” or “brown” Mongoloids,” etc.) there is no law in the language that says “race” must be understood that way. A race is merely a group of people who share a similar genetic stock. While it is certainly a stretch to call Yoruba people a “race” since their differentiation from the other ethnicities in Nigeria is relatively recent, I would rather have people call themselves a race than call themselves a tribe. It’s for the same reason that parents would rather their children fancy themselves as princes, princesses, queens, and kings than call themselves “nigga,” “bitch,” etc. Tribe means a group of primitive people. Race has no such connotation. So, yes, I support any Nigerian ethnic group that labels itself a “race.”

Is it “elder brother” or “older brother”? Or are both correct?

They are both correct and can be used interchangeably. However, I’ve noticed that Americans hardly ever say “elder brother” or “elder sister.” They almost always say “older brother” or “older sister.” I asked a couple of my American friends why they prefer “older” to “elder” when they refer to the hierarchies of age among their siblings, and they said “elder” sounds to them a little too formal and stilted. They said “older” sounds warmer and more informal. But “elder” is clearly preferred to “older” in British and Nigerian English.

Note, though, that all dictionaries agree that there is no difference between “elder” and “older,” except that “elder” is mostly used attributively, that is, it is often be used before a noun (as in, “elder brother,” “elder sister,” etc. but NOT “he is elder than me”) whereas “older” can be used predicatively, as in, “he is older.” Elder can also be used as a noun, such as in the sentence, “he is the elder of the two brothers.”

My friend and I had an argument. We went to visit a friend who lives in a storey building. We were going to the third floor, but she insisted it was the second floor because even though there were four floors, it is not called a four-storey building because there are three stories plus the ground floor. She said a one-storey building has two floors yet it’s called a one-storey building.

Both of you are correct depending on the variety of English you’re speaking. In British English your friend is right. But you’re right if we use the standards of American English. Americans call the British English “ground floor” the “first floor.”

 This issue has led to a lot of confusion between American and British English speakers. An Indian friend of mine told me he missed several meetings and was late for many others because he couldn’t relate to the American idea of counting floors in tall buildings. Being Indian, he spoke British English where the ground floor isn’t regarded as the first floor. So he said his American employers would ask that they should get together at, say, the third floor for an official meeting. In British English, that would be the second floor since Brits don’t count the first floor. He would wait endlessly and no one would show up. He would have been fired, he said, if his American employers had not been persuaded by his explanation that he was the victim of a communication breakdown activated by the dialectal variation between British and American English.

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Saturday, May 2, 2015

AIT, Buhari, and journalistic objectivity

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I was distressed when I read that President-elect Muhammadu Buhari had “banned” the African Independent Television (AIT) from covering his personal activities because of the malicious propaganda the station ran against him in the last presidential election. I immediately communicated with people close to the president-elect and expressed my consternation that such an ill-advised decision was taken at all.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, can justify the banning of a media organization from covering the “personal” activities of the president-elect of a country. Yes, AIT was condemnably coarse and primitive, even slanderous, in its anti-Buhari partisanship. I can’t bring myself to even watch the station again. But it is entirely indefensible to ban the station from covering Buhari. To do so would be childish, petty, vindictive, and anti-democratic.

Fortunately, it turned out that neither the All Progressives’ Congress (APC) nor Buhari himself was even aware of, much less endorsed, the misguided ban on AIT. It was an overenthusiastic aide who unilaterally blackballed the station from the press corps covering the president-elect. I was delighted that APC almost immediately repudiated the ban, and Buhari himself disclaimed any responsibility for it. “The time of change has come and we must avoid making the same mistakes that the outgoing government made,” he said in a statement.

The needless controversy over the ban conspired to lionize AIT and lend them undeserved public sympathy. Buhari is no longer the underdog that he was before his victory at the polls. He is now the top dog. News of the ban on AIT came across as the oppression of an underdog by the top dog. All over the world, across cultures and generations, whenever there is a fight between the top dog and the underdog, the underdog almost always wins in the court of public opinion, even if the underdog is in the wrong.

I am glad that Buhari has said in a public statement that he would henceforth keep a tight leash on his aides. That is the way it should be. As I wrote in my April 4, 2015 column titled, “After the Euphoria, what President-elect Buhari Needs to know,” Buhari’s “relationship with the media would be crucial. The media will get under his skin. Columnists like me will excoriate him, not because we hate him, but because we care, and because we know that to perform well and be in touch with the masses of people who elected him, we need to help hold his feet to the fire. When Thomas Jefferson famously said, ‘Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,’ he was acknowledging the importance of the media to the sustenance of democracy.”

Incidentally, it was APC’s Director of Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, who introduced me to Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote when he taught me a course called “Critical Issues in Mass Communication” at Bayero University Kano almost two decades ago. Malam Garba, by far the most intellectually astute journalism teacher I’ve ever had in my whole life, also taught us that years after Jefferson’s lavish praise for the press, when he became the target of scurrilous, often mendacious, attacks by American newspapers, he was compelled to confess that, “People who never read newspapers are better informed than those who do, because ignorance is closer to the truth than the falsehoods spread by newspapers.”

That was the closest Jefferson came to fighting the media. The point of all this is to say that in a democracy, the president shouldn’t be seen to be muzzling unfriendly media. Caustic “opposition media” are an inextricable part of the architecture of all functioning democracies.

Now, people who know nothing about journalism rail against “bias” and “lack of objectivity” in the journalism of AIT and say because the organization betrays the “ethics” of the journalism profession, it should not only be sanctioned but should be deprived of the privilege of covering the president-elect. This thought-process betrays two strands of ignorance.

First journalism ethics, unlike ethics in law and medicine, are entirely voluntary. They have no force of authority and can be flouted without any legal consequences. Although it is great to abide by the ethics of journalism, disobeying them isn’t grounds for ostracism. Journalists and media organizations that violate the ethical codes of their profession, in time, lose relevance and risk professional death. It is not the place of government officials to sanction media organizations for ethical violations. Governments can only take legal action against media organizations and journalists if they commit legal violations, such as libel.

Second, objectivity in journalism is a relatively recent development. It was birthed in America in the 1800s. Before then, journalism had always been unapologetically partisan and wedded to political causes and political parties. Objectivity, fairness, balance, reportorial neutrality, etc. have not always been tenets in journalism. The emergence of these ethos in eighteenth-century American journalism, from where it was exported to other parts of the world, was not inspired by a moral or professional imperative; it was inspired by the need to appeal to all segments of the commercial and political elite in order to get advertising dollars from all of them. (If you want to know more about the history of objectivity in journalism, read my academic article in the Review of Communication titled, “News with Views: Postobjectivism and Emergent Alternative Journalistic Practices in America's Corporate News Media”).

So lack of objectivity isn’t a betrayal of journalism; it’s a return to its roots. That is what is happening in the American media today. Objectivity is receding in salience and professional prestige in American journalism. No media organization should be muzzled for lacking objectivity. It’s refreshing that Buhari realizes this. It’s even more refreshing that he has people like Garba Shehu at the helm of his media relations. But the AIT PR disaster must never be allowed to happen again.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

From Febuhari to General March for Buhari: Buhari’s Linguistic March to Aso Rock

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

The last presidential election was as much a political contest as it was a linguistic one. In the battle for the hearts and minds of voters, enthusiasts of President-elect General Muhammadu Buhari on cyber space were incredibly linguistically creative. They came up with original, persuasive, catchy, memorable, and thought-provoking puns, which helped construct a rhetoric of inevitability of Buhari’s victory. President Jonathan’s supporters were caught flat-footed by the unassailable rhetorical ingenuity of Buhari’s supporters; they came up with no original puns of their own, and merely reacted with thoughtless and rhetorically impoverished comebacks to the rhetorical demolition of their candidate.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp were the battlefields of the rhetorical and linguistic contest between Buhari and Jonathan. For instance, #Febuhari, which I adjudged “Nigerian English’s most creative pun” has more than one million public mentions on Twitter. This is also true of #GeneralMarchforBuhari—or its many variations—which cleverly manipulates the initials of General Muhammadu Buhari’s names. It came forth a day after the February 14 polls were shifted.

Several people wrote to tell me that my wildly popular February 1, 2015 article titled “Is ‘Febuhari’ Nigerian English’s Most Creative Pun?” might have contributed to the shifting of the date of the election. They argued that I so intellectualized the intersection of the pun and the date of the election that it scared the heck out of Jonathan’s supporters in high places. So they chose to denude Buhari of the specialness that a February 14 election date would have conferred on him. Of course, my article had nothing to do with the shift in the date of the election. That’s giving me way more credit than I deserve.

But if the shift in the date of the election was a consequence of the unsettling rhetorical auspiciousness of the date for Buhari, Buhari’s supporters came up with an even more rhetorically expansive pun in #GMB—which both stands for General March for Buhari and General Muhammadu Buhari. The presidential and National Assembly elections were officially designated as “general” election by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The elections took place in “March.” And Buhari’s supporters said the “general” election in “March” was for “Buhari,” thus GMB, which also happens to rhyme with the initials of the president-elect’s name.

Additionally, the verb “march” has a multiplicity of meanings that unite around the notion of walking for something, especially in protest. So General March for Buhari hints at protest votes for Buhari in response to the wrongheaded upending of “Febuhari.” How ingenious!

I elected not to write on the rhetorical ingenuity of the #General March for Buhari hashtag because I didn’t want to be accused of jinxing Buhari’s victory again should the loonies in Aso Rock decide to shift the date of the election yet again. 

In light of Buhari’s victory, I have decided to republish a slightly shorter version of my February 1, 2015 article. Enjoy:

I am blown away by the morphological and semantic creativity in the coinage of the term “Febuhari” by the contagiously ebullient social media foot soldiers of APC presidential candidate General Muhammadu Buhari.  It’s a well-thought-out pun that simultaneously exploits the ambiguities of sound, meaning, time, and language to make a compellingly humorous yet deeply political and rhetorical statement.

Puns, also known as paronomasia, are, by definition, a play on words. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, puns artfully manipulate “the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words that sound alike but have different meanings.” Based on this definition, it is customary to taxonomize puns in many different forms, but I’ll discuss only three types of puns in this piece.

The commonest type of pun is the homophonic pun. This type of pun depends on the similarity in the sounds of words to achieve its effect. Examples are: “Why is it so wet in England? Because many kings and queens have REIGNED there.” “Doctors need PATIENCE.” In these examples, the writers exploit the similarities in sound between “rain” and “reign” and between “patience” and “patients” to achieve both humor and intentional ambiguity.

Homographic puns are the other common types of puns. They exploit the similarities in the spellings of otherwise dissimilar words. An example is: “There was once a cross-eyed teacher who couldn't control his PUPILS.” In this example, “pupil” is exploited for humor and creative ambiguity.  “Pupil” both means a schoolchild and the black dot in the eye. In the context of the sentence, both senses of the word convey two equally valid but different meanings. When you’re cross-eyed, you can’t control the pupil of your eyes, and when you’re a cross-eyed teacher, it’s hard to control unruly pupils because you can’t see them clearly.

There is another type of pun called a recursive pun. It’s a two-pronged pun that requires the reader to have some familiarity with the first part of the pun in order to make sense of the second. Example: "A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother." To understand “the Freudian slip” part of the pun, you need to know about Sigmund Freud’s controversial Oedipus complex, which basically says men’s subconscious desires to sexually possess their mothers causes them to be hostile to their fathers.

 “Febuhari” encapsulates several of these categories of pun. Let’s start with the obvious. The forthcoming presidential electoral contest of which Buhari is a major contender against the incumbent will take place in February this year. The similarity in sound between February (pronounced fe-bu-wari in Nigeria and fe-biu-ari in southern United States) and “febuhari” makes “febuhari” a homophonic pun.  In fact, in southwest Nigeria where most Yoruba people don’t phonologically distinguish “h” from “e” in spoken English (which some people have called the “h factor” in Yoruba English) “febuhari” and “February” may actually sound alike in everyday conversations. Similarly, in writing, “febuhari” and “February” share striking orthographic similarities. The similarities are not sufficient to qualify “febuhari in February” as a homographic pun, but it closely approximates it.

It’s probably the rich cultural ingredients in “Febuhari” that make the coinage particularly profoundly creative. The presidential election won’t just take place in February; it will take place on February 14, which is Valentine’s Day, celebrated worldwide as a day of love. Now, here is where it gets really intriguing: “ifẹ” in Yoruba means “love.” Thus, “febuhari” roughly translates as the clipped version of “love Buhari” in Yoruba. 

There are two ways in which this is a deeply poignant recursive pun.
First, Buhari’s social media aficionados have implored Nigerians to show love to Buhari on “lover’s day” by voting for him en masse. This political advocacy exploits the coincidence of the dates of Valentine’s Day and of Nigeria’s presidential election in remarkably inventive ways. In other words, the Buhari social media enthusiasts (let’s call them “febuharists”) are saying: “let Buhari be your Valentine this Valentine’s Day.” As people who are familiar with Valentine’s Day tradition know,  to agree to be someone’s Valentine is synonymous with agreeing to risk all for the sake of the love you have for the person. This love isn’t necessarily amorous; it often, in fact, is agape love, as selfless, fraternal love is called in Christian theological discourse. In any case, Valentine actually means “strength” in Latin. The word shares lexical ancestry with “valor” and “valiant,” which both mean bravery, heroism, gallantry, etc.

So the dimension of “febuhari” that means a call to action for Nigerians to leave everything aside and vote for Buhari on February 14 requires a knowledge of the traditions of Valentine Day celebrations. That makes it a recursive pun of some kind. Second, if Buhari wins the 2015 presidential election, it would be because of the political alliance he struck with the Yoruba people in Nigeria’s southwest. In the three previous elections he ran for president, Buhari’s appeal—and votes—were confined to the Muslim north. As I’ve pointed out in previous articles, that’s never sufficient to win a national mandate. What has changed in this election cycle is the massive “ifẹ” (let’s just shorten it to “fe”) that Buhari seems to be getting from the Yoruba people. If the unprecedentedly effusive profusion of “fe” from Yoruba people for Buhari leads to his electoral triumph in the February 14 election, it would give a whole new meaning to “febuhari.”

Now, I am aware that President Jonathan’s supporters have come up with a counter Twitter hashtag called “FailBuhari.” There isn’t even the tiniest smidgen of linguistic creativity in the hashtag. It suffers from several originality deficits. It doesn’t manipulate any aural, semantic, or visual cues to convey any special sense. In other words, it isn’t the least bit punny.

 Maybe the creators of “FailBuhari” would have had better luck inventing their own pun around “good luck,” the president’s first name, which lends itself to countless punning possibilities.  You don’t have to like Buhari’s youthful and high-spirited online devotees (some of whom can be insufferably obnoxious) to admit that they have created Nigeria’s most ingenious political neologism.  Febuharists may not know what a pun is, but they will sure go down in history as Nigeria’s best punners.

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Re: People President Buhari Must Fire to Show he Means Business

I literally received hundreds of messages from readers in response to my request for suggestions of people President Buhari must get rid of to inaugurate a new era for the country. It’s impossible to publish all of them this week, but I present below a sample. President Jonathan has already fired the number 2 man on my list—for totally dishonorable reasons, but I don’t pity him one bit. That’s what you get for duplicity and opportunism. You can't run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Well, see below a sample of the suggestions people have for the incoming president.

Yes, Buhari will find it difficult to work with the listed people but one positive outcome of the APC's victory that I expect to see is that attitudes will begin to change in organisations like DSS, NTA and Police. Their attitudes under GEJ is based on the general assumption in Nigeria that opposition will never win at the centre and an incumbent will always get re-elected. This assumption made these officials to feel secure in mistreating the opposition. Now that the assumption has been shattered and the opposition has won, future officials will be more careful because they now know that opposition CAN win. This is one benefit I've been hoping that our country will reap from this opposition victory. It will help to make our institutions more mature. By the time our officials get used to opposition parties winning, they will become less partisan out of fear and just do their jobs professionally. I believe that this is how institutions have matured in older democracies
Raji Bello

I suggest AIG Mbu be fired, too. He threatened to kill 20 "innocent" civilians should the life of a police officer be put to danger. He's a verbally undisciplined and insensitive officer.
Aliyu Abubakar

I will like to see GMB get rid of Accountant and Auditor General of the Federation. There couldn't have been serious Fraud in the oil sector without their connivance. We don’t also need the present CBN Governor. There are rumours that he was recruited to cover up for the irregularities in the oil sector. Nice and exceptional piece as usual Prof.
Auwal Gambo Ya'u

The CBN Governor should go. Tracing the missing $20 billion to the bank he once presided over has made him complicit. There is just no way for a bank's chief executive not to be aware of that kind of money and its source lodged under his custody. Also, his emergence as the replacement for the whistle blower raises questions in my mind of a possible plot to cover up the misdeeds. I'm surprised no body is asking this question or making the connection.
Ricky Dukun

The DG of the National Broadcasting Commission who not only looked away while broadcast organisations led the nation towards the road to Rwanda but actually later got start clamping down on the ones that attempted any balance. The DG of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria; the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria; and the INEC Commissioners.
Odoh Diego Okenyodo

I agree that these people should go but merely letting go of them without any form of accountability is wrong even if the intention is to not appear vindictive. The civil and armed services ought to have procedures for holding them to account for their actions and these ought to be implemented. To do otherwise is to give the wrong impression.
Ọna Uchechukwu

The Comptroller General of Nigeria Custom also needs to be fired. He, among other things, seized the container that was bringing President OBJ's book, 'My Watch' and just released it few days ago.
Abdul Ibrahim

With respect to the above, let me itemize the points:
1. Marilyn Ogar: Definitely, the DSS used to be a secret organization up to the time of its Director under Late Yar adua Mr Gadzama, but from Mr Epiyong, it became something else. Heads must roll.
2. IGP Suleiman Abba: I remember a story told by Mahmud Jega on an event which occurred during Trust Annual Dialogue, then Mr Abba was an AIG, where he said "a policeman is trained to recognized and disobey an illegal order unlike a soldier" he buttressed his point with explanation and everyone was impressed with the COP. Then, he started interpreting the constitution. He nailed his coffin last week with the transfer of Mr Ogunlewe AIG in-charge of South-south out of Rivers on election day, where all sort of shenanigans took place. Definitely gone.
3. Service Chiefs: Definitely gone, I don't have to waste by time because they mismanage the war. I teach in Yola, and we saw a lot of soldiers running away from battlefield without even shoes.
4. The Nation's cash cow: The Queen Bee first followed by anyone in the Towers of Corruption.
Abdulhameed Abubakar Yola  

As far as I am concerned, you have mentioned the two main culprits namely the DSS Spokesperson as well as the Inspector General of the President (IGP).  In fact, by mentioning the name of the Brigadier who openly came out and denounced the GMB’s non-available credentials in his file amounted to breach of oath of office. As a member of Buhari Support Organization (BSO), I threatened to sue the person for this breach of rules and regulations governing the secret of office in matters of file disclosures. To crown the whole matters into one, the nation’s security apparatus need to be reformed, enhanced and developed so as to reflect the world standard of unbiased security set up. 

I suggest making an overhaul of the manpower system in the affairs of the Nigeria National Petroleum Company (NNPC) which the GMB has served as its Petroleum Minister and Presidential Assistant on Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF). However, with current petroleum scarcity facing the country, the fuel and kerosene subsidy scandal as well as the continued loss of revenue of billions of US dollars from the oil sector, have testified that all was not well with the NNPC. We are sick and tired with liars and propaganda emanating from this sector. A lasting solution will be found by the incoming democratically elected administration ever found in Nigeria.

The Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) has no business dragging the organization into politics. The NTA will have a lot of questions to answer than mere sacking the Board and management of the authority. If found wanting, they should be made to face the music to taste the dividends of change advocated by the masses.


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Sunday, April 19, 2015

Popular Expressions English Borrowed from Other Languages

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Dictionary.com has an interesting slide show of 9 popular expressions in English that are direct, unidiomatic translations from several languages. Linguists call direct translations “calques” or loan translations. If the direct translations are single lexical items they are called “loanwords” which, as you will see below, is it itself a loanword. 
Picture taken from Dictionary.com

As the examples below show, many of these calques, which have become part of the natural rhythm of the English language, are sometimes ungrammatical, yet native speakers are never even conscious of the ungrammaticality of the expressions.

I had an interesting discussion with my American students early this week about the host of totally ungrammatical idiomatic expressions in English that first emerged as broken English expressions but that later got incorporated into the language. It took my conscious prodding before they realized that expressions like “have a look-see,” “long time, no see,” “no-go area,” etc. are ungrammatical by the conventions of English grammar. Well, these are Chinese expressions that have now become idiomatic in English.

 I hope someday that unique expressions in Nigerian languages (such as our greetings, which are untranslatable in English, our expressions for emotional states, etc.) will be translated directly into English and popularized beyond the shores of Nigeria.

The first 9 loan translations on this list, including the intro that precedes them, are culled directly from Dictionary.com without any editorial intervention on my part. The rest, however, are based on my research. So here goes:

Many of our favorite English words are borrowed directly from other languages, like kayak from Inuit, robot from Czech, or algebra from Arabic. However there’s a strange subspecies of loanwords called calques. Calques are loan translations, sometimes appearing in the form of literally translated words or phrases. In other cases, speakers of the borrowing language approximate the sounds from the original language, which leads to some very interesting etymologies. Here are a few of the best.

1. “Brainwashing.” This term is a direct translation of the Chinese phrase xǐ nǎo, which literally means "to wash the brain" but referred to a method for systematically changing attitudes or altering beliefs. In the 1950s, the noun brainwashing entered English, quickly followed by the verb. This influence perhaps occurred as a result of the American involvement in the Korean War.

2. “Moment of truth.” Ernest Hemingway's story Death in the Afternoon features an early use of this expression, a direct translation of the Spanish momento de la verdad. The original Spanish phrase is invoked in a bullfight at the moment the matador is about to kill the bull. In the 1960s, the English counterpart skyrocketed in use and has remained popular ever since.

3. “Lose face.” Calques are fascinating in part because they challenge the idea that a concept is linguistically or culturally specific. The idioms lose face and its opposite, save face, are good examples. They entered English from the Chinese idioms diū liǎn and liú diǎr miànzi, respectively. These both play on the sense of face as an outward appearance, though they both had culturally specific implications in Chinese before they entered in English in the late 1800s.

4. “Flea market.” This useful synonym for a rummage sale entered English in the 1920s as a direct translation of the French phrase marché aux puces, which began as a joking description of the secondhand goods offered at outdoor sales that were rumored to attract fleas.

5. “Devil’s advocate.” This phrase originated in the Catholic Church as the title for a person who was named to argue against canonization of a potential saint. The original Latin advocatus diaboli refers to taking the devil’s position in a disagreement. Devil’s advocate also took on the sense of “a person who advocates an opposing or unpopular cause for the sake of argument” when it entered English in the mid-1700s.

6. “Earworm.” The sense of earworm meaning “a catchy tune” entered English in the 1980s directly from the unrelated German word Ohrwurm. The similar sound of the German term lent itself to this already-existing English word. Earworm has caught on in English and the phenomenon it describes has been studied by a range of psychologists and neurologists, including Oliver Sacks; the word even inspired a mash-up artist named DJ Earworm.

7. “Scapegoat.” Scapegoat was coined by William Tyndale, an eminent Biblical scholar who translated the Bible into English in the early 1500s. According to his interpretation, this term is a literal translation of the Hebrew term azazel, which referred to a goat let loose in the wilderness on Yom Kippur after the high priest symbolically laid the sins of the people on its head. This term acquired its extended meaning of “a person made to bear the blame for others” in the early 1800s.

8. “Forget-me-not.” This flower, commonly regarded as an emblem of constancy and friendship, comes from the Old French ne m'oubliez mye, which literally translates to “forget me not.” The direct translation entered English to describe the flower in the 1500s, and was also extended to include other similar plants.

9. “World-view.” The now-common English word world-view is a direct translation of the German compound word Weltanschauung, from welt meaning "world" and anschauung meaning "perception.” This term refers to “a comprehensive conception or image of the universe and of humanity's relation to it,” and since the 1980s, it’s seen a massive increase in use.

10. "Long time no see." This ungrammatical but nonetheless fixed English expression, which is used as a salutation by people who have not seen each other for a long time, has origins in Chinese. It’s a loan translation from Mandarin hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn, which literally means "very long time no see."

11. “Bushmeat”. You probably think “bushmeat” is a loan translation from a Nigerian, or at least an African, language given our love for bushmeat. Wrong. It’s from French, where it is rendered as viande de brousse. Other names for bushneat in English are “wildmeat” and “game meat.”

12. “Point of view.” Your point of view is the mental attitude that informs your perception of things. This expression is a direct translation from the French expression point de vue.

13. “Loanword.” Interestingly, this alternative word for calque or direct translation is itself not original to English! The Random House Dictionary says the word is borrowed from the German Lehnwort. It has been in use in English since the 1870s.

14. “Straw that broke the camel's back.” This fixed idiomatic expression for the limit of one’s patience is a direct translation from Arabic. The original phrase in Arabic is alqassha alathee qassamat dhahra al baeer, which literally means “the straw that broke the back of the camel.”

15. “Rest in peace.” This expression we use to wish dead people eternal rest isn’t original to English. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, it’s a direct translation from the Latin requiescat in pace.

16. “Blue blood.” This well-established English idiom for nobility was borrowed into the language through a direct translation from the Spanish sangre azu.

16. “In a nutshell.” This English idiomatic phrase that means “in a few words” isn’t original to English. It’s a direct translation from Latin, where it appears as in nuce. The Random House Dictionary says the expression has been attested in the language from between 1175 and 1225.

17. “Paper tiger.” We call people paper tigers when they appear strong and threatening but are actually powerless and ineffective. The expression is a direct translation from the Chinese zhilaohu. It was popularized in the West by China’s Mao Zedong during the Cold War.

18. “It goes without saying.” When we say something “goes without saying,” we mean it’s obvious. It’s a direct translation of the French expression, cela va sans dire.

19. “Badmouth somebody.” To badmouth somebody is to engage in ill-natured talk about them, especially behind their back. It can also mean to curse somebody. You probably guessed that this expression has origins in Africa. It’s a direct translation from the Mandingo dà n yà mà. Mandingo is widely spoken in the Gambia, Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and many West African countries. The expression came into mainstream English via African American Vernacular English.

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Saturday, April 18, 2015

People President Buhari Must Fire to Show he Means Business

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I am a firm believer in the virtue of magnanimity in victory. I also think that, as Frank Sinatra once said, “Overwhelming success is the best revenge.” So if I were to advise President-elect Buhari, I would say he should resist the urge to take revenge against people who threw the kitchen sink at him during the last election. His overwhelming electoral success, in spite of expectations to the contrary, is enough revenge.

Nevertheless, for President-elect Muhammadu Buhari to signal to the world that the change he promised is not a mere mealy-mouthed election-winning mantra, he must get rid of certain intolerably insidious elements of the ancien régime before he even gets down to work.

My only caveat is that if he will merely replace them with people who will replicate their notoriety, unprofessionalism, and toxic partisanship in his government, then there is no point reinventing the wheel. The same people will change loyalty and render the exact services they rendered to Jonathan—with, of course, the same results. And we all know what the results are.

If Buhari is prepared to be a real change agent, to be the catalyst for Nigeria’s structural and systemic makeover, to be the trendsetter for future generation of transaction-oriented leaders, he should get rid of the people listed below and tell their replacements never to repeat their mistakes:

1. Marilyn Ogar. The spokesperson for the Department of State Services (DSS) has no business being in her job. I would lose confidence in Buhari if he doesn’t fire this woman immediately he gets down to business. She was thoroughly and unprecedentedly irresponsible in the explicitness of her political partisanship. She is the most despicable spokesperson the DSS has ever had the misfortune to be saddled with. Given the centrality of the DSS to the internal security of the country, we can’t afford to retain a person with her mindset and level of hate at the helm of the agency’s information management.

It’s impossible to recount all the appalling things she said in the discharge of her duties in the past few years, but a few gems will suffice. When APC won the Osun governorship election in 2014, for instance, she said, “We should thank God that since after the Osun State election there has been no bomb blast. Glory be to God.” She basically implied, without a shred of evidence, that APC was responsible for the bomb blasts in Nigeria. She also dismissed the #BringBackOurGirls movement as a “franchise” of terrorist organizations. That level of obnoxious partisanship is unacceptable for the spokesperson of the nation’s top intelligence agency.

2. Suleiman Abba. In my November 29, 2014 article titled “Suleiman Abba: Inspector General for the President (IGP),” I wrote: “Let’s stop the pretense. We have no Inspector General of Police in Nigeria. What we have is an Inspector General for the President. It’s still IGP, but we know what the “P” in the initialism actually stands for. IGP Suleiman Abba will certainly gown down in the annals as the most openly politically partisan police chief Nigeria has ever had.

“….Abba has carried on as if he is no more than an appendage of the president’s office.  But it isn’t his overzealously undisguised partisanship in and of itself that is unusual; it’s the bewilderingly tasteless showiness with which he is doing it.

“From instructing his men and women to forcibly deny members of the House of Representatives entry into their chambers, to initially spurning the invitation of the House before grudgingly accepting it, to refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Speaker when he appeared before the House, Abba has stepped outside the bounds of decency and conventional policing. He has redefined his role as not the chief law enforcement officer of the nation but as a protector of the president and a tormentor of his opponents. These days it’s hard to tell the IGP apart from the People’s Democratic Party’s hacks and spin doctors. In fact, he seems to be doing a better job at defending the PDP and the President than the people who are paid to do so. Any Inspector General of Police who outdoes hacks and spin doctors in political propaganda is beneath contempt.”

No one will take Buhari seriously if he does not fire Suleiman Abba. I will personally transmute into Buhari’s severest critic if he retains Abba.

3. Service chiefs. All the political service chiefs that conspired with Goodluck Jonathan to cause a shift in the date of the presidential election should be fired. They were clearly partisan and unprofessional in ways that have no parallel in Nigeria’s democratic history.

While we are at it, Brigadier Olaleye Lajide, the rabidly obsessive army spokesman who lied to the news media that Buhari had no school certificate, and that Buhari got enlisted in the army on the written recommendation of his principal, should be fired. He would do a better job being PDP’s spokesman.

In the last few months, the Nigerian military got embarrassingly politicized, and they in turn militarized our politics. A politicized military of the kind we witnessed under Jonathan has no place in a democracy, especially a democracy brought about by the thirst for change. They are a danger to the nation. Buhari should weed them out forthwith if he truly means change.

4. NTA chief executives.  No one watches the Nigerian Television Authority these days. The few who watch it do so either because they have no option or because they are curious to know what the heck the dinosaurs at NTA are up to. All NTA does now is, to use my description of the organization in a 2004 article titled “Tonie Iredia’s Propaganda on NTA,” assault “our sensibilities with cheap, unimaginative propaganda,” and being an “irritatingly boring, one-sided propaganda mouth-piece of an insensitive, incompetent and unbelievably venal government.”

 NTA was particularly vicious in its propaganda in the last presidential election. For NTA to be worth viewing again, its top dogs need to go. Never again should we have the kind of NTA we had in the months leading up to the election.

5. The corrupt fat cats at NNPC.

 Who else should go to smooth the path for the change Buhari promised us? I’d love to read your thoughts.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Common Election-Related Grammatical Errors Nigerian Journalists and Politicians Make

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Most of the material in this week’s column was initially published on May 1, 2011. It is still relevant today, particularly because several people keep sending me questions that are already answered in the article. I have updated the article and added a few more examples.

 1.  “Casted votes.”  In 2011, I listened to Channel TV’s live stream of the governorship elections and heard educated Nigerian pundits talking about votes that had been “casted.” Similarly, in an April 16, 2011 story titled, “Jonathan votes in presidential election,” Vanguard wrote: “Goodluck Jonathan has CASTED his vote in today’s presidential election at his Otuoke ward in Bayelsa.” Similarly, during the live broadcast of the announcement of the results of the last presidential elections, several of INEC’s returning officers, who are professors, repeatedly talked of the “total number of votes CASTED.”

Cast is an irregular verb that doesn’t change form to reflect the change of tense. Its base form is “cast,” its past tense is “cast,” and its past participle is still “cast.” It shares the same pattern as “put” (who says “putted”?), “let,” “cut,” “hurt,” etc.  So “casted” is wrong for the same reason that “putted,” “letted,” “cutted,” “hurted,” etc. are wrong. The error arises, I think, from the fact that “broadcast,” another irregular verb, can correctly be rendered as “broadcasted,” although the Associated Press Stylebook frowns at the use of “broadcasted” as a past tense of “broadcast.” I take off points from my students’ essays if they write “broadcasted” because we use the Associated Press Stylebook as our guide. Nevertheless, the use of “broadcasted” as the past tense of “broadcast” enjoys widespread acceptance. In other words, while “broadcasted” is an acceptable alternative for “broadcast,” “cast” remains “cast” irrespective of its tense.

2. “Guber race,” “Guber polls,” “Guber candidates,” etc. Nigerian newspaper headline writers invented the word “guber” as the short form of “gubernatorial,” a chiefly American English term that means “related to a governor.” Unfortunately, the word has gone from headlinese (i.e., the peculiar English of newspaper headlines) to everyday speech in Nigeria. But even Americans who use the word “gubernatorial” in their political lexicon don’t have a short form for it. That leaves Nigerians as the only people in the English-speaking world who use “guber” as a stand-in for “gubernatorial.”
This wouldn’t have been a problem except that in American English “guber” is an informal word for facial pimple. It’s also jocular medical slang for tumor.

 From my point of view, “guber” is needless linguistic ghettoization. The word was invented not by popular or even elite Nigerian linguistic creativity (because no occasion calls for it) but by newspaper copy editors desirous of shortening the word “gubernatorial” in order to fit headline space. I know how that works because I was once a news editor. “Guber” was first used by ThisDay, which has become something of a trendsetter in Nigerian newspaper journalism in the past few years. 
But "gov," the standard abbreviation for "governor," "governorship," and "government" in all varieties of English, could easily replace "guber" since "governorship" is, in fact, the more usual word than "gubernatorial" even in American English. Plus, "gov" actually saves more space than "guber."

So the invention of "guber" is the product of intellectual laziness and lack of imagination.

3.  “Results of elections/victory upturned.” This error takes several forms, but the operative word here is “upturn.” Nigerian journalists write “upturn” when they should write “overturn.” These two words are completely unrelated.  To overturn is to rule against or to cancel officially.  “Upturn,” however, is never used as a verb in the sense of “reverse” or “overturn.” When “upturn” is used as a noun, it usually means an upward movement or improvement in business activity, etc. (Example: There has been an upturn in the economy). The opposite of upturn is downturn. Americans prefer “uptrend” to “upturn” to denote boom in business activity.

When “upturn” is used as an adjective (that is, when it is rendered as “upturned”), it is traditionally used in two senses. The first is as a synonym for “turned upside down” and the second is to describe the position of a person's nose. When a nose is described as upturned, it means it is turned up at the end. So it is more proper to talk of election results or electoral victories being “overturned” by the courts.

4. “Running neck to neck.” The correct form of the idiom is “neck and neck.” An abiding feature of idioms is grammatical fixity. That is, you can’t arbitrarily change the syntactic properties of idioms. “Neck and neck,” which means inconclusive as to outcome or just even in a race or comparison or competition, can also be rendered as “head-to-head” (maybe that’s where the “neck-to-neck” error comes from) or “nip and tuck.” For the sake of variety, or what stylisticians call “elegant variation,” I hope our journalists will try out these alternatives. I am sick of seeing “neck-to-neck” mentioned in every story about close electoral contests.

5. “Shoot-at-sight order.” In reporting the post-election communal upheavals, our journalists habitually describe government’s orders to shoot recalcitrant rioters as “shoot-at-sight” orders. But the correct rendering of the idiom is “shoot on sight.” Another alternative, which I actually prefer because of its unequivocalness,” is “shoot to kill.”

6. “Electioneering campaign.” This is a tautology, i.e., a useless repetition. Both “electioneering” and “campaign” mean the same thing. I think the source of the error is the mistaken notion that “electioneering” is an adjective that modifies “campaign.” But electioneering is a noun, NOT an adjective. It simply means “political campaign,” the campaign of a candidate to be elected. So it is sufficient to just write about “Goodluck Jonathan’s electioneering for the office of president” and spare us the verbal superfluity of an “electioneering campaign,” which actually adds up to “campaign campaign”!

7. “Contest an elective position.” This is not exactly an error; it’s only an archaic usage. In contemporary Standard English in both America and Britain, “contest” is now scarcely used as a verb to mean compete for an elective office against other candidates. The more usual words are “run” and “vie” (in American English) and “stand” (in British English).

 When “contest” is used as a verb, it is often to indicate that something is being made the subject of dispute, contention, or litigation. So Americans would say, “General Buhari ran for president in 2011 and contested the outcome of the election.” Britons would say, “General Buhari stood for election to the office of president in 2011 and contested the outcome of the election.” But Indians, Pakistanis, and citizens of other former British colonies still use “contest” the way we use it in Nigeria.

8. “Lame duck.” A lame duck is an elected official who is still in office but not slated to continue either because he or she chooses not to seek re-election or because of constitutional term limits. It is also used to refer to an elected official who is continuing in office during the period between an election defeat and a successor's assumption of office, such as President Goodluck Jonathan now. But even after President Jonathan declared that he would run for president in 2011, I read stories and commentaries in Nigerian newspapers that described him as a “lame duck.” Someone also wrote an article in 2010 describing Plateau State governor Jonah Jang, who hadn’t served out his first time yet and who indicated he would seek a second term, as a “lame duck.”

 Perhaps, people are deploying the extended meaning of the term that denotes a disabled or ineffectual person. But this can be confusing when it’s used in an election-related context since the term has a fixed meaning in electoral politics.

9. Impeach. Nigerians understand the word “impeach” to mean “remove from office.” But that is not what it means. To impeach a government official is to formally charge them with a wrongdoing. After impeachment, they will be tried and either acquitted (if they are not found guilty) or removed from office (if they are found guilty).

So, in 2006, Ekiti State governor Ayo Fayose wasn’t just impeached; he was impeached AND removed. Ten years earlier in America, Bill Clinton was impeached BUT acquitted. Removal from office is not the only outcome of impeachment, as the Clinton example showed.

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