By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
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.
In an April 8, 2010 article titled “On ‘Metaphors’ and ‘Puns’ in Nigerian Media English,” I wrote: “Then you have ‘pun intended’ or 'no pun intended,’ which our journalists— and people who are influenced by their writing— understand to mean any meaningless and arbitrary collocation of phrases. I have read many articles by Nigerians with the phrases ‘no pun intended’ and ‘pun intended’ and couldn’t help wondering if the writers actually know what a pun means.” Febuharists may not know what a pun is, but they will sure go down in history as Nigeria’s best punners.
The last two columns contained proofreading errors that I wish to draw the attention of my readers to. In my January 18, 2015 column titled “President Jonathan’s Awkward Grammatical Miscues on the Campaign Trail,” I wrote: “American English speakers now just say ‘senior(s)” instead of ‘citizen citizen(s),’ although ‘senior citizen(s)’ still appears in America’s informal and formal registers.” Change “citizen citizen(s)” to “senior citizen(s).”
In my January 25, 2015 column titled “Q and A on Nigerian English Learner Errors,” several ungainly proofreading errors appeared. I wrote “Although Nigerian speaker use it a lot, contemporary English speaker no longer use it.” Elsewhere, I wrote, “Nigerian English speaker routinely pluralize it” and “have never hear a native English speakers…” The sentences should be “Although Nigerian speakers use it a lot, contemporary English speakers no longer use it.” “Nigerian English speakers routinely pluralize it.” “[H]ave never heard a native English speaker…”