"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Sunday, August 28, 2016

“Fatally Wounded,” “Declared Wanted”: Nigerian Military’s Fatally Wounded Grammar

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

My email and Facebook inboxes have been inundated with questions about what the Nigerian military truly meant when it said it had “fatally wounded” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. Did the military mean it killed him? Or did it mean it severely injured him?

 And when the military “declared” people “wanted” who were not on the run, what precisely did it mean? 

Instead of replying individually to tens of private messages and to social media tags, I’ve decided to devote this week’s column to these questions. So here you go:

“Fatally wounded” means dead
I wrote a Facebook status update in the aftermath of the announcement by the Nigerian military that it had “fatally wounded” Abubakar Shekau. I wrote: “The Nigerian military said today that it has ‘fatally wounded’ (meaning killed) murderous Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in an airstrike. Great! But how many times will the Nigerian military kill the same man? [T]he military has claimed to have killed Shekau at least three times in the past. Does the man resurrect after every death? Or is he literally the proverbial cat with 9 lives, in which case we should expect at least 5 more Shekau ‘deaths’ before he is actually finally dead and gone?”

Several people found the update funny. But other people said to me that by “fatally wounded” the military didn’t mean Shekau had been killed; that the military merely meant he had been brutally injured. Some even went so far as to say that every Nigerian English speaker understood the military as saying that it had critically injured Shekau. Well, that’s a stretch.

Many Nigerians I know didn’t understand “fatally wounded” to mean severely wounded. No truly educated person (in English) would understand “fatally wounded” to mean “brutally wounded.” Since the military didn’t just write for uneducated or poorly Nigerians, it is fair to expect it to abide by internationally acceptable standards of English usage. For one, the military’s news release was picked up by several international media organizations, as you will see below, and our military was assumed to be communicating in Standard English, not uneducated Nigerian English.

 Fatal means “bringing death.” A fatal accident is an accident in which people die. “Fatally” is the adverbial form of “fatal,” and it means “resulting in death.” In fact, the usage example given for “fatally wounded” in the 2014 edition of the Collins English Dictionary is, “fatally wounded in battle.” Fatality also means human death. So when I say there has been a decrease in vehicular fatalities, I am saying fewer people now die in road accidents than in the immediate past.

According to the 2015 edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “Fatal alone means ‘causing or ending in death,’ and in this meaning it often associates with accidents, diseases, and injuries” (298). So being “fatally wounded” can only mean sustaining injury “ending in death.”

 It is only when “fatal” is used in a metaphorical sense that it does not necessarily denote and connote death. For instance, we can say someone made a “fatal error,” a “fatal misjudgment,” suffers from “fatal ignorance” or has “fatal character flaws.”

Simply put, no one who is “fatally wounded” lives to tell the story. That is why most Western news organizations that republished the Nigerian military’s news release concluded that Shekau had been killed--again.

Here are samples: US News and World Report’s headline was: “BokoHaram Leader Killed.” Washington Times’ headline was “Nigeria reports Boko Haram leader killed in airstrike as John Kerry arrives.” The headline in Yahoo Finance via Quartz was “Nigeria’s army says it has killed Boko Haram’s leader—again.” The Sun, the UK’s most widely circulated newspaper, had this headline: “‘FATALLYWOUNDED’ Boko Haram leader ‘killed by Nigerian military airstrike’ along with 300 militants.” TIME magazines’ headline was, “BokoHaram's Abubakar Shekau 'Fatally Wounded' – Again

I can go on, but the point is that most international news organizations understood the military as saying that it had killed Abubakar Shekau. More than 90 percent of the headlines, from my informal survey, had these words in them: “Nigerian army,” “killed,” “Boko Haram leader,” and “again.” “Kill” and “again” were recurrent because past military spokesmen had bragged about killing Shekau—complete with putative pictorial corroborations.

However, a second look at the news release that inspired the misunderstanding that the military said it had killed Abubakar Shekau shows that it is the writer of the release that is fatally ignorant of English grammar. He wrote: “In what one could describe as the most unprecedented and spectacular air raid, we have just confirmed that as a result of the interdiction efforts of the Nigerian Air Force, some key leaders of the Boko Haram terrorists have been killed while others were fatally wounded.”

The semantic disaster in this statement is  as astonishing as it's comical: some “have been killed while others were fatally wounded”! It is uncannily similar to Patience Jonathan’s infamous statement—while condemning suicide bombing—that she would rather kill herself than commit suicide! Well, just like committing suicide and killing oneself are synonymous, being killed and being fatally wounded mean the same thing! As I showed earlier, to be fatally wounded means to die from wounds.

I am aware that Nigerian newspapers habitually report on “fatal accidents” that have no fatalities, that is, where no one dies. But the military can’t afford to repeat that sort of error, especially when it communicates about Boko Haram—about which the whole world is now deeply interested— to the world.

“Declared wanted”
There are two issues involved in the military’s use of the term “declare wanted.” The first is semantic and the second is idiomatic or structural.

 After the flush of criticisms against the military for “declaring” people “wanted” who weren’t on the run—who, in fact, turned themselves in, but were told to go home and return the following day—it became apparent that the person who wrote the news release for the military was just being—yet again—fatally ignorant of communicative English grammar.

The news release, it later emerged, only meant to convey the sense that the military needed the cooperation of three people who were believed to have close associations with Boko Haram to get information on the precise location of the Chibok girls. “Therefore, the Nigerian Army hereby declares the two gentlemen and the lady wanted for interrogation,” the military new release said. But then the release ended with this bewildering statement: “We are also liaising with other security agencies for their arrest if they fail to turn up.”

Typically, in security terminology, wanted notices are issued only after people evade arrest, fail to honor invitation for interrogation, or are adjudged to be criminals on the run. That’s the practice all over the world. That was not the case with the people the military “declared wanted.” Another military spokesman was impelled to clarify on TV that the “wanted” people were merely “invited” for questioning—through the media.

Finally, people asked why I didn’t use the phrase “declare wanted” in my column in the Daily Trust on Saturday. Well, it wasn’t conscious, but it’s probably because I am used to hearing the expression as “issue a wanted notice,” not “declare wanted.” That doesn’t mean “declare wanted” is wrong; it’s just uniquely Nigerian English phraseology, which I actually like.  In my Facebook status update on this issue, I wrote “declare wanted.”

The Nigerian Military and English
Because of the effects of internet permeability, the communications of the military travel far and wide, and poor grammar can impede intelligibility and defeat the purpose of communication. In this critical period when the military needs to share news of its successes and triumphs and persuade the world of the rightness of its actions, it can’t afford the luxury of being fatally ignorant of basic grammar rules.

A cursory look at the news releases that emanate from the military shows that there is a blithe unconcern with grammatical correctness in the military’s public relations unit. For instance, a recent news release from the military read, “TROOPS ARRESTS SUSPECTED KIDNAPPERS IN BAUCHI STATE.” Any good senior primary school student knows that “troops” is a plural subject that should take the plural verb “arrest,” not “arrests.”

But mechanical errors such as this, which interlard news releases from the military, can be ignored. What can’t be ignored are costly semantic errors that completely distort the meaning of the messages the military wants to pass across.

The military could certainly use the help of good English graduates in its communication with the public to avoid this constant stream of communicative and grammatical embarrassments. 


Fatally wounded English grammar kills terrorists without actually killing them. That’s fatally bad.

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Naming a Dog and Buhari’s Emerging Democratic Tyranny

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Buhari’s administration is shaping up to be perhaps the most intolerant and petulant civilian administration in Nigeria. But it isn’t the intolerance and petulance in and of themselves that are disquieting; it is the crying incompetence of this government’s handling of dissent, which often ends up popularizing and lionizing nonentities.

It started with Indigenous People of Biafra’s Nnamdi Kanu. He was spewing his rib-tickling inanities on the fringes of the Internet and on a barely known radio station. Then, suddenly, when he started attacking President Buhari, Nigerian authorities moved in swiftly to contain him. They announced that they had successfully jammed his radio station, but came back a few days later to refute an alleged libelous falsehood the station made against Buhari!

Of course, news of the “jamming” of the radio and the press release refuting what the station reportedly said against Buhari (after it was supposed to have been jammed!) caused the station—and the ideology it espouses—to make national and international headlines. And there was an enormous spike in the number of searches for “Radio Biafra” and “Nnamdi Kanu” on Google and other search engines.

This, combined with Buhari’s unambiguous antipathy toward the southeast, has sparked a resurgence of Biafran and neo-Biafran movements and periodic sanguinary communal upheavals. This was completely avoidable. If the government had ignored (or quietly diluted)  Kanu and his Radio Biafra and demonstrated even token large-heartedness toward the southeast (and the deep south) in the immediate aftermath of Buhari’s epochal electoral triumph in spite of opposition from the region, we wouldn’t know of Kanu and IPOB. But Nigerian authorities couldn’t stomach an insult at Buhari.

Now another man by the name of Joe Fortemose Chinakwe has become an international celebrity. He has been arrested, detained, imprisoned, and charged to court just because he named his dog Buhari. This is the height of petty intolerance.

Worse bile was directed at previous civilian presidents in the country. Tafawa Balewa, Shagari, Obasanjo, Yar’adua, and Jonathan were often at the receiving end of so much thoroughgoing hate, but the world didn’t know about this because no one was arrested and imprisoned. (Comedian Ali Baba said he named one of his dogs “Obasanjo” during Obasanjo’s administration and publicized it. In northern Nigeria, Jonathan and Attahiru Jega were called some of the vilest names I have ever heard—and in songs, too.) Public office is not for huffy crybabies.


I have read many Muslim commenters point out that giving a dog a Muslim name was offensive in and of itself. I agree. The problem is that the name wasn’t given to the dog to spite Muslims; it was given to make a political statement. If Buhari’s name was Smith Punapuna, the dog would be named precisely that.

But Buhari isn’t even a Muslim name in the strict sense of the term.  As I pointed in previous articles, the name Bukhari (which we render as Buhari in Nigeria because many Nigerian languages don’t have the guttural consonant that the phoneme “kh” represents), is derived from Bukhara, which is the name of a town in what is now Uzbekistan in the former USSR.

The person who popularized the name is a 9th-century author of hadith collections known as Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl ibn Ibrāhīm ibn al-Mughīrah ibn Bardizbah al-Ju‘fī al-Bukhārī.

In Hebrew, Arabic, and Farsi, “i” is added to the name of a town to indicate descent from the town. So “Bukhari” simply means someone from (the town of) Bukhara, what Hausa speakers would call “Dan Buhara.” It’s like someone taking offense because someone named his dog Dan Kano, Dan Daura, Dan Hadejia, etc., which, though names of towns, are borne by some northerners as last names (without the “dan”).

But that’s not even the most important point. How many people will the Buhari administration arrest for getting under the president’s skin? In other words, how many people will this administration make undeservedly popular because of its intolerance and incompetence? Many frustrated people who feel they have nothing to live for in light of the present economic crunch in the country are going to name their dogs after Buhari. Watch out. It’s now the surest way to cheap popularity, and the intolerance and incompetence of this government will ensure that they get all the attention, and possibly financial benefits, they crave. 

But it isn’t only after Buhari that dogs will be named; dogs will also be named after key ministers of the government.

As I am writing this column, I read that a woman by the name of Ada Ogbonna has named her dog after the comically loudmouthed Lai Mohammed. “Meet my dog, Lai Mohammed,” she wrote on Facebook. “I named it after someone I admired.”

There will be several such publicity baits. A competent government with some clue won’t swallow such easy baits. This is all part of democracy. I live in America where the president of the country is called all sorts of dreadful names without consequences.  For instance, many racists named their dogs Obama, but Obama disarmed them by naming his dog Bo, which is short for Barack Obama.

We can’t pretend to be practicing democracy and clamping down on people for merely saying hurtful things that get on our frail nerves.

This is particularly telling coming from a government that is caught flatfooted in almost everything, a government that daily inflicts misery on its poor citizens while its power structure feeds fat on the misery of the poor. It’s troubling when a government that took six months to appoint a predictable cast of characters as ministers wastes no time to arrest a person for naming his dog Buhari. It is concerning when a government that is mute in the face of the horrendous mass murder of hundreds of Shiites in Zaria arrests inconsequential people because they got under the skin of the president.

Maybe Buhari is not even aware that someone has been imprisoned because he named his dog after him.  Maybe. But people who are close to and love the president should tell him that the emerging pettiness and intolerance of his administration are becoming intolerably embarrassing.

You can’t be paying over-sized attention to minor, inconsequential irritants while the country burns under your watch.

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Buhari’s Leadership Desperately Needed in Military’s Boko Haram Blunders

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

My former undergraduate ideological mentor at Bayero University Kano by the name of Yunusa Zakari Yau (popularly known as Y.Z. Yau) wrote a Facebook status update on August 15 that aptly captured a barely expressed but nonetheless widespread sentiment. “[President Muhammadu Buhari] seems contented to answer the title of president and watch the old days of impunity rolling back to traumatize Nigerians,” he wrote.

Y.Z.’s status update might have been inspired by a general philosophical anxiety about the progressively disconcerting direction of the Buhari administration. But President Buhari’s baffling silence (and apparent inaction) in the face of the Nigerian military’s farcically inept publicity stumbles after the release of Boko Haram’s recent propaganda video tends to reinforce notions that he is an out-of-touch president who has ensconced himself in the plush luxuries of Aso Rock and allows the country to be on autopilot.

I have written at least three Facebook status updates on the Nigerian military’s ill-advised issuance of a wanted notice for journalist Ahmed Salkida, NGO activist Ahmed Umar Bolori, and self-described Boko Haram benefactor Aisha Wakil. It’s obvious to any perceptive observer that the wanted notice was a mere frivolous publicity stunt designed to deflect attention from the reputational hit the military took from the Boko Haram propaganda video.

There is no greater evidence for this than the fact that when Ahmed Bolori turned himself in to military authorities upon reading in the media that he had been declared wanted, he was told to “go home” and return the following day—after waiting for hours on end and making calls and sending text messages to senior military officers who are personally known to him, including the man who signed the wanted notice. Who issues a "wanted notice" for people without any interest in seeing, much less interrogating, them? Aisha Wakil, who should be in jail based on her well-documented self-admission that she is an enabler of Boko Haram’s mass slaughter of innocents, also bragged that she was available to be detained.

Well, certain conditions should precede the issuance of a wanted notice for people. They should have been invited to answer questions about their complicity in a crime. They should have spurned such invitations to appear before law enforcement agents— and gone underground. And after they were arrested, charged, and detained, they should somehow have managed to escape, and be in danger of vanishing into thin air. None of these scenarios happened.

People who initially defended the military’s bungling, hasty, unjustified issuance of the wanted notice said there was method in the military’s madness. But in the face of the unexpected backlash against its reckless unprofessionalism, the military was impelled to walk back its initial press statement. Director of Defence Information Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar said on Channels TV on August 16 that "declaring [Salkida, Bolori and Wakil) wanted was not our intention. We are inviting them to come and shed more light on Boko Haram so that collectively we can achieve the desired goal."

But how do you “invite,” through a news release, people whose contact information you already have, with whom you relate on a periodic basis, and whose homes you know? What sort of “invitation” is that? And, although Brigadier General Abubakar said the military was merely seeking the cooperation and help of Salkida, Bolori, and Wakil, acting Nigerian Army Spokesperson Colonel S.K. Usman threatened them in public media. “They were evasive. They wanted everything on their terms,” he said in a press statement after meeting with Bolori and Wakil. “We are determined. They must cooperate.”

 Seriously? How do you injure people's reputation before the whole world (supposing they are innocent), threaten them publicly, and expect them to help you with the information you need to do your job?

This all frankly feels like watching an unimaginative, low-budget, slapdash Nollywood movie about clueless dolts.

Before I'm misconstrued, let me be clear that I'm NOT calling into question the propriety of inviting, detaining, or interrogating people who might help the military in its fight against Boko Haram. I have a lot of respect for the valiance of our military, which has seen Boko Haram nearly decimated. I support any legal and sensible effort to bring a total end to Boko Haram’s deathly grip on Nigeria’s northeast. But it is irresponsible, and even unlawful, to issue a wanted notice for people who are not in hiding, who haven’t repulsed any invitations, who haven’t been formally charged with any offense, and whose cooperation you desperately need in your anti-terrorism fight.

 Issuance of wanted notice for people who haven’t been charged with any wrongdoing is a prima facie case of libel.  As my friend Dr. Raji Bello has pointed out on Facebook, the wanted notice has been archived in national and international media platforms, and is indexed by search engines. Hundreds of years from now, these people will be remembered as people for whom a wanted notice was issued by the Nigerian military. That’s incalculable injury to their reputation. If they are, however, found guilty of aiding Boko Haram terrorists by a competent court, the negative publicity would be warranted.

But more than anything, it’s a grave strategic and tactical miscalculation to publicize information about the people the military needs to get to the root of the nagging Boko Haram insurgency. The three "wanted" or "invited" people could easily have been invited quietly without all the media circus. We shouldn’t be discussing this issue in the media. The military, through its incompetent information management, drew us into this.

The needlessly exhibitionist tactics of the military has the unsettling potential to reverse the gains made against Boko Haram and to further endanger the lives of the Chibok girls and hundreds of other innocent people in Boko Haram captivity.

The media bluster and the incoherent, mutually contradictory press statements from three different military spokespersons these past few days were obviously merely intended to impress President Buhari and to counter Boko Haram’s recent propaganda against the military. But that’s a singularly irresponsible way to handle delicate military intelligence matters like this.

And that’s why President Buhari needs to show decisive leadership now. He isn’t just the president and commander-in-chief, he is also a retired general—and a former military head of state to boot. His seeming silence and indifference to the military’s current avoidable reputational self-destruction is helping to feed the narrative that he is simply “content to answer the title of president”—and enjoy the perquisites that come with it— but either unwilling or unable to do the hard work the title demands and entails. That’s a dangerous narrative he must not allow to take root—if he is still interested in bringing about the change he promised us and leaving an enduring legacy.

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Aisha Buhari, Grammar Error Types, and Response to Critics

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Last week’s column titled “Aisha Buhari’s Embarrassing Grammatical Infelicities at USIP” elicited three familiar and predictable kinds of responses. (For the record, the Aisha Buhari speech I analyzed last week was delivered at George Mason University at Fairfax, Virginia, not at the United States Institute of Peace. My apologies.)

The responses ranged from enthusiastic expressions of approval of the column and commendations to me for having the courage to be evenhanded in using the grammatical bungles of public officials to call attention to popular usage errors, to protestations that clarity of meaning trumps grammatical correctness, to declarations that no one is immune from errors, and to fulmination that excessive concern with English grammar is evidence of lingering “colonial mentality” or “inferiority complex.”

I will address these concerns, as I’ve done in the past when similar responses accompanied my censure of the grammatical bloopers of high-profile Nigerians.

Does clarity of meaning trump grammatical correctness? Maybe. But that may be true only where poor grammar doesn’t interfere with meaning itself. When someone refers to a current democratically elected administration as a “recent regime,” for instance, both meaning and grammar are hurt. Plus, eye-catching grammatical errors have the unintended effect of detracting from the message a speaker—or writer—intends to transmit.

Most importantly, though, this is a grammar column. My sole preoccupation in this column is to write about grammar and usage. People who are discomfited by that have the option to not read it.

Everyone Makes Mistakes
It’s true that everyone makes mistakes. I, too, make mistakes. I have said that many times here. For instance, in a February 5, 2010 column titled “Hypercorrectionin Nigerian English,” I wrote: “Well, no one is immune from errors when it comes to the English language. As Steve Rivkin and Fraser Sutherland aptly observed in their book, The Making of a Name: The Inside Story of the Brands We Buy, ‘English is a slippery language, strewn with homonymic banana peels, slapstick mondegreens, and tongue twisters. Even fluent speakers of English constantly make mistakes.’.”

If everyone makes mistakes, why do I sometimes isolate other people’s mistakes for censure? Well, it’s because there are different categories and degrees of intensity of errors.

There are two broad types of errors that people are liable to commit in writing—and sometimes in speech. These are errors of carelessness and errors of ignorance.

Errors of carelessness are often the product of negligence, insufficient time to thoroughly go over written work, or omissions that occur because the brain is working faster than the hand. There is a legendary example of an error of carelessness that occurred in a book title in 1967. Celebrated Canadian communication scholar Marshal McLuhan popularized the expression “the medium is the message.” But when he wrote a book using the expression, an error of carelessness interfered with his meaning. The book came out as, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects instead of The Medium is the Message: An Inventory of Effects. Message and massage are, of course, two different words. When the error was spotted, the damage had already been done.

In last week’s column I, too, made an error of carelessness when I wrote “sore thump” instead of “sore thumb.” I corrected the error on this blog, but not on the Daily Trust website. I’ve had cause to use the idiom (“stand out/stick out like a sore thumb”) at least six times in past articles (as a quick search on my blog and Daily Trust’s website shows), yet I interchanged “thumb” with “thump”—just like McLuhan unintentionally transposed “message” with “massage.”

Errors of ignorance, on the other hand, are errors that result from a clear lack of knowledge. When a writer repeats the same mistake several times in the same written material—or when a speaker doubles down on the same error in a single speech act, it is usually evidence that the error is actuated by ignorance, not carelessness.

When I give writing assignments to my students here in the US, I have a habit of giving them back their papers—without any correction from me— after a week. I then ask them to look over their writing again and point out any errors they discover. They usually catch their errors of carelessness, such as omissions and other proofreading errors—errors we are all liable to make, especially when we work under tight deadlines.

The other errors that remain in their papers after the self-editing exercise are taken as self-evident errors of ignorance. It is these errors of ignorance that I evaluate and correct. This saves me time (I don’t have to expend energies to correct errors that won’t benefit my students since they already know them), heightens students’ consciousness of the need for extreme care when they write, and generally enhances the learning experience.

The errors I highlighted in Aisha Buhari’s speech at George Mason University were errors of ignorance. For instance, she said “a solutions” two times in her speech.

I ignored her errors of carelessness, such as her saying “the international communities” instead of “the international community.” At several points in her speech, she correctly said “the international community,” so the one time that she said “the international communities” can only be the result of carelessness. She also pronounced the “h” in “honorable,” which is always silent in all varieties of English. I chalked it up to carelessness resulting from diffidence and public speaking anxiety.

English as Colonial Mentality?
People who dismiss English as “colonial mentality” lack self-reflexivity. The very name of our country, Nigeria, was handed to us by English colonialists, and it’s derived from English. More than 50 years after independence, we are still stuck with it. And people talk of English being a holdover of colonialism?

 Well, the response I gave to former President Goodluck Jonathan’s supporters who criticized my calling attention to his grammatical errors when he visited the United States in 2010 is still relevant.

Here is an abridged version:

“Jonathan's problem during his visit here wasn't merely one of avoidably appalling grammar and unmentionable protocol blunders; it was also one of a disturbing deficiency of substance in his speeches and interviews. That anybody would excuse, tolerate, and even celebrate this presidential mediocrity is disturbing. I only hope we will democratize this new-found toleration for presidential mediocrity and extend it to every subsequent occupant of Aso Rock irrespective of geographic and ethnic origins.

“People who think I was obsessed with Jonathan’s grammar and comportment (and I pointed out only three grammatical slips, although he hardly uttered a word that wasn’t a mockery of the English language) fail to realize that the whole point of his trip to America was to impress Americans and buy himself—and Nigeria—some legitimacy in the process. He didn’t come here to govern Nigeria. So judging his performance in terms of his eloquence, grammatical correctness, substance, etc. is fair game.

“Some people charge that I am somehow being ‘neo-colonial’ in insisting that Jonathan and any other leader speak acceptable English when they represent us abroad. My critics say French, Korean, Chinese, etc. leaders speak their native languages and get foreign language translators to interpret for them when they travel abroad. Fair enough. But do the French, Koreans, Chinese, etc. use English as the language of instruction all levels of their education, in their courts, and in their mass media? Do they use it as the language of government, indeed, as the “official” language of their countries?

“No! Well, we do in Nigeria. So citing those examples is a notoriously imperfect and intellectually fraudulent contrast of contexts. In Nigeria, you can't proceed to institutions of higher education if you don't have a credit in English—even if you want to study mathematics or, for that matter, a Nigerian language! [Y]ou can't acquire post-secondary school qualification in Nigeria if you don't have a credit in English.

“Goodluck Jonathan presumably passed ‘O’ level English before proceeding to study for a bachelor’s degree, a master's and then a PhD. Yet he committed errors that should prevent anybody from passing ‘O’ level English. [Aisha Buhari is supposed to have a master’s degree].

“In any case, most of us so-called educated Africans have abysmally low levels of proficiency in our native languages, unlike citizens of the countries cited above. We learn and think in the languages of our former colonial overlords. That's a reality that no romantic, mushy "Africanism" can gloss over. [F]ew African leaders have sufficient proficiency in their languages to effectively communicate high-minded diplomatic thoughts in them…

“English is the linguistic glue that holds our disparate, unnaturally evolved nation together. Although Nigeria has 3 dominant languages, it also has over 400 mutually unintelligible languages. And given the perpetual battles of supremacy between the three major languages in Nigeria—indeed among all the languages—it is practically impossible to impose any native language as a national language.


“So, in more ways than one, English is crucial to Nigeria's survival as a nation. Without it, it will disintegrate! I am not implying that African leaders should not speak their native languages when they travel abroad, but the truth is that if Obasanjo, Yar'adua, Jonathan—or any other Nigerian leader— were to choose to communicate in their native languages while representing Nigeria abroad, the backlash at home would be immense. It would alienate other people who don't speak their languages.”

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Re: Nigeria as a Perverse Anarchist Paradise

Find below a sample of the reactions that followed my column with the above title.

One thing I know for sure cannot be taken away from you is the passion with which you have analysed our country's problem both in the Jonathanian days and now. I applaud you for being consistent and humanist, at least so it seems, in most of your articles.

I do share in many of the observations raised against the PMB's administration. But I seek to differ with you in the rush to judge the administration given that, it is only in office for less than a year. Even more so, one thing I, you or anybody else cannot take away from PMB is his sincerity and integrity. But these alone, although important, I must admit, are not enough to translate into viable policy options. Worse still, is also the bereft nature of the personae surrounding PMB, who, in fact, are subtly behind many of the policies that have continued to raise eyebrows and condemnation.

But I can sure you, there would still be Nigeria for all of us to speak of only if we, I mean all Nigerians, sincerely and continuously appreciate government's efforts (this is an area I find lacking in most of your engagements), this is in addition to remaining on guard against action or in action of government that hardly could serve the collective interest.
Once again, keep it up!
Abubakar S Ahmed Ph.D

‎I agree with you that things are generally bad in Nigeria at the moment. The economy is in a bad shape. Many of our people are suffering severe deprivation. However I also think we are seeing the efforts being made to improve on the quality of governance and at the same time enhance integrity in government business.

Of course most Nigerians accept the hike in petrol price because of the promise of eventual stabilisation of the supply with the possibility of a lower price in the long run. While most of our political leaders may not have a proper or healthy political/ideological orientation, some are committed and hopefully in this dispensation, many more will emerge on the national stage. I don't agree with you that the government is witless, incompetent and irresponsible. Rather, I see a new commitment to the agenda for national redemption.

As for the middle class,‎ it may be selfish but is neither docile nor self-satisfied. Of course it has factions and the dominant faction is sold on a neo-liberal framework built on market orthodoxy. The class has tried to embrace democratic logic in its struggles. There are complex socio-economic and political problems to resolve and I want to believe we are making some progress.
Warrisu Alli

I read your offering this morning with mixed feelings. Mixed feelings because on one hand, you brilliantly dissected the Nigerian state and the short comings of its selfish middle class and on the other, you kept hammering needlessly on the issue of the recent hike in petrol price, blaming it as the trigger for the hyper-inflation we are presently contending with.

I don't know when government or governance ceased to exist in Nigeria. But since the coming of the military in 1985, there has been a gradual and systematic descent into 'No Government'. Public services and utilities began to degenerate and continuously got from bad to worse. The entrenchment of corruption as state policy by the military further worsened the situation. The souls of Nigerians were completely destroyed as people no longer see any difference between what's wrong and right. And no society can function in such Hobbesian state.

I shade tears anytime I see kids sitting on bare floors, in some cases without roofs, in public primary schools. The teachers are barely qualified to teach. And you wonder what knowledge is being impacted on this youngsters. Public utilities like electricity and water supply are epileptic. Virtually every household has become a local government (apologies to Wole Soyinka). So I completely agree with you that government has no meaning or doesn't exist in the lives of so many citizens. In fact, I support the idea that the national budget should be shared to all Nigerian citizens annually.

On the fuel price increase, prof, you are continuously getting it wrong. President Buhari inherited a near bankrupt economy. I'm sure you are following the mindboggling revelations of the unconscionable thievery of the last government. As at today, I doubt if 5% of the looting between 2010/2015 have been uncovered. Secondly, since PMB took office, oil price has been fallen except for some marginal increase in the last few month. Currently it's about $42/ barrel.

You should know that, it's the revenue we get from oil sales that we use to fund petroleum products importation. Don't forget there are other commitments which government must keep, like payment of salaries, payment to contractors and settlement of international obligations, etc.

You should also take into consideration the sabotage by Niger Delta militants. Their activity is reducing the volume of crude oil export. So it's under this difficult situation that president Buhari had no choice but increase the price of petrol at the pump.
Sanusi Maiwada

We have already lost hope. Buhari, the seeming Messiah of Nigerian masses, has joined the class of lickers either consciously or subconsciously. A man of proven integrity is circled by highly corrupt political sycophant who keep telling him all is well with his erroneous policies. He addresses us saying he feels our pain, but he can’t imagine our plight.

Today if an average Nigerian is earning 50,000, that amount has reduced by half due what you call hyperinflation. Gradually the middle class is being eliminated with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and the government has no palliative on ground. Verily Allah is saviour.
Yusuf Anas, Kano Poly.

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Sunday, August 7, 2016

Aisha Buhari’s Embarrassing Grammatical Infelicities at USIP

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

I am aware that this article won’t endear me to several of my thin-skinned Buhari/APC partisan readers who, interestingly, wildly acclaimed my past articles that pilloried former First Lady Patience Jonathan’s sidesplitting grammatical transgressions.  But I am never one to shy away from embarking on what I’m convinced is a just and fair undertaking because of a fear of backlash from mawkish, hypersensitive crybabies.

In any case, in my Saturday column—and in my Facebook status updates—I have defended Wife of the President Aisha Buhari against Gov. Ayo Fayose’s brash and reckless calumny against her. In an ironic twist, it was her bid to give the lie to Fayose’s charge that she couldn’t visit the US without being arrested that caused her to come here and give a speech at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) that is the subject of this column.

Mrs. Aisha Buhari’s speech at the United States Institute of Peace didn’t rise to the level of former First Lady Patience Jonathan’s legendary contortion of English grammar, but it was inexcusably egregious nonetheless, not least because it was supposed to be the product of preparation and forethought.

In general, the speech was riotously incoherent, lacked lexical and semantic discipline, and was peppered with avoidably ugly and elementary grammatical infractions.  Mrs. Buhari vacillated between reading from a prepared script and speaking off the cuff.  But the prepared speech and Mrs. Buhari’s extemporizations were indistinguishable: both were tortured, infantile, error-ridden, and cringe-worthy.  Winston Churchill’s famous putdown of his opponent—"He spoke without a note and almost without a point."—seems to apply to the Wife of the President. (Watch the video below.)

Below are highlights of the infelicities that stood out like a sore thumb during Mrs. Buhari’s 10-minute speech at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC:

1. Subject-verb agreement. Like Patience Jonathan—and former President Goodluck Jonathan—Aisha Buhari doesn’t seem to have any respect for subject-verb concord rules in English grammar. These howlers illustrate this: “I want to…thank the international community for giving us a solutions…,” “those that needs to be…,” “the school have been running…,” “adult ones that needs the opportunity.”

Most people know that a singular subject (such as “the school”) agrees with a singular verb (such as “has”) and a plural subject (such as “those,” “adult ones”) agrees with a plural verb (such as “need” instead of “needs.”) That means the Wife of the President should have said, “those that need to be,” “the school has been running,” “adult ones that need the opportunity.”  

Of course, “a solutions” is a self-evident bloomer: you don’t pluralize a noun that is preceded by the indefinite article “a” because “a” signals nominal singularity. In other words, “a solutions” is both ungrammatical and illogical since it implies nominal plurality and singularity simultaneously. It is either “solutions” or “a solution.”

2. Redundant pronoun. Pronouns typically take the place of a noun and save us the torment of ungainly repetition. That’s why, in Standard English, pronouns don’t typically appear in the same sentence as the nouns they refer to. In her USIP speech, Mrs. Buhari said the following: “As you are all aware, Boko Haram issue, it is a global issue attached to terrorism, which need [sic] to be addressed globally.”

“Boko Haram issue” is the antecedent for the pronoun “it” in the sentence quoted above, which makes the pronoun superfluous since it appears in the same sentence as its antecedent. “Boko Haram is a global issue…” would convey the same meaning—and without the ungrammatical baggage. I admit, though, that redundant pronouns of the kind I identified in Mrs. Buhari’s speech occur in nonstandard native English dialects. But we are talking of an official speech in a formal context in a foreign, English-speaking country.

The sentence also violates the basic principle of pronoun-antecedent agreement. The principle says, “A pronoun usually refers to something earlier in the text (its antecedent) and must agree in number — singular/plural — with the thing to which it refers.” The phrase “which need” refers to “Boko Haram issue,” which is a singular subject that needs a singular verb, i.e., “needs.”

3. A curious resultant “done.” During her speech, Mrs. Buhari praised the University of Maiduguri for remaining open even in the worst moments of Boko Haram insurgency. “The university really done us proud,” she said. This is a misuse of the past participle “done” that linguists call the “resultant done.” It is curious because it is typical of the informal, nonstandard (and sometimes illiterate) speech of the American south.

In Standard English, the sentence would be reworded as, “The university has done us proud.” If we want to be faithful to Mrs. Buhari’s lexical and structural choice, we would rephrase it as, “The university really did us proud.”

4. Buhari’s government as a “recent regime.” Mrs. Buhari puzzlingly referred to her husband’s administration as “the recent regime.”  Here is the context: After thanking the “international community” for its military and financial support that led to the defeat of Boko Haram, in a rather awkward transition, the Wife of the President said, “In which the recent regime has done so far considering what we inherited—the level of insecurity in the country—we can now say that we successfully fought the Boko Haram insurgency.”

Apart from the weak, messy transition, that’s some really dizzyingly incoherent verbal blizzard!
But the bigger issue is that she called the current administration “a recent regime.” There are two problems with that. First, the word “recent,” especially when it is applied to administrations, implies an immediate past, that is, that which precedes the present. It is both ungrammatical and illogical to speak of an incumbent administration as “recent.”

Second, there is always a tone of disapproval when a government is referred to as a “regime.” That is why the word is often reserved for military and other totalitarian governments. Even the Associated Press Stylebook defines “regime” as “the period in which a person or system was in power, often with a negative connotation. For example, Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Nazi regime.” I hope Mrs. Buhari doesn’t consider her husband as the honcho of a regime.

5. “Academicians.”  Mrs. Buhari called university lecturers in the audience “academicians.” Well, it’s OK to refer to university teachers as “academicians” in Nigeria and in other non-native English-speaking countries, but it doesn’t hurt to learn the proper form when you address native speakers in their own territory. Educated native English speakers call university teachers “academics,” not “academicians.”

Here is an abridged version of what I wrote on this in my December 6, 2015 column titled, “Academician” Or “Academic”? Q and A on Nigerian English Errors and Usage”: [A]n ‘academic’ is someone who teaches or conducts research in a higher educational institution, typically in a university. In British and Nigerian English, academics are also called ‘lecturers.’ In American English, they are called ‘professors.’

  “An ‘academician,’ on the other hand, is a person who works with or is honored with membership into an academy, that is, an institution devoted to the study and advancement of a specialized area of learning such as the arts, sciences, literature, medicine, music, engineering, etc. Examples of academies are the Nigerian Academy of Letters, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, etc.

“Not all academics are academicians and not all academicians are academics. In other words, you can teach in a university, polytechnic, college of education, etc. and never be made a member of an academy, and you can become a member of an academy without ever being a teacher or a researcher at a higher educational institution. Note that while most academicians are also academics, most academics are never academicians.

 “A little note on pragmatics is in order here. Although many dictionaries have entries that say ‘academician’ and ‘academic’ can be synonymous, this isn’t really the case in actual usage, at least among educated native English speakers. It is considered illiterate usage in British and American English to call higher education teachers and researchers ‘academicians’; they are properly called ‘academics.’ Many dictionaries merely capture the entire range of a word’s usage without discriminating socially prestigious usage from uneducated or archaic usage.”

Concluding Thoughts
Mrs. Buhari obviously needs a lot more help than she is aware of and is getting. She is grossly ill-served by her speech writer, who also probably manages her social media accounts. The recent grammatical bloopers from her Facebook page (which were quickly cleaned up after she became the object of ridicule on social media) could be an indication that her speech writer is also her social media manager.

 Given how much she is thrusting herself into the public eye, her poor grasp of English grammar will soon become grist to the humor mills—like it was for Patience Jonathan. She can avoid this by doing the following: (1) recede to her quiet, unobtrusive self, (2) bone up on basic English grammar, (3) surround herself with people who give a thought to grammatical correctness and completeness, or (4) speak in Fulfulde or Hausa and get an English translator.

Postscript:
Mrs. Aisha Buhari spoke at George Mason University, Washington, DC, not at the USIP.

It's "sore thumb," not "sore thump."

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Saturday, August 6, 2016

Nigeria as a Perverse Anarchist Paradise

By Farooq A. Kperogi. Ph.D.

I was in Nigeria with my family for a month between late June and late July. In my one-month stay there, I developed a heightened awareness of two uncomfortable truths about Nigeria that I had always known but hadn’t quite come to terms with.

The first uncomfortable truth is that government is practically non-existent in the quotidian lives of everyday Nigerians, and we might as well formalize anarchism—or some notion of libertarianism— as our system of government. The second uncomfortable truth is that the Nigerian middle class will, through its newfound troubling insouciance and smug self-satisfaction, dig our country’s grave.

Anarchists and libertarians are often thought of as representing two extreme ends on the ideological spectrum, at least in American political discourse, but they are nonetheless united in their common hatred for government. While anarchism advocates the total extirpation of even the vaguest vestiges of government, American notions of libertarianism advocate the least possible presence of government in the affairs of individuals.

Well, in a perverse way, Nigeria is at once an anarchist and libertarian paradise, but it is one that neither Western anarchists nor American libertarians would want to live in and that would explode the philosophical foundations of their theories. 

On issues that really matter to the survival and progress of individuals, the Nigerian government is noticeably absent. For instance, in the three weeks I stayed in my hometown, I provided my own electricity. The entire Baruten Local Government Area in Kwara State where my hometown is located has not had even a watt of electricity for more than a year, and there is no hope they ever would any time soon.

Their experience mirrors the fate of several rural and urban communities in Nigeria. On several occasions, Nigerian newspapers have reported that electricity generation fell to exactly zero megawatts. I stayed for a week in two different hotels in the federal capital, and both hotels generated their own electricity. No one depends on the government for electricity now. This is a wretched new low even by Nigeria’s sordid standards.

Government also barely provides water. People who can’t afford to build their own boreholes (like I did for my parents) are condemned to drink water from unsanitary wells and streams in rural communities— and from bedraggled hawkers selling water in unkempt cans in urban areas. This isn’t a new problem, but it seems to be exacerbating. 

Except in Abuja, the federal capital territory, and a few state capitals, governments at all levels have abandoned their responsibility to build roads or to maintain existing ones. We wanted to visit New Bussa in Niger State, my wife’s place of birth, which also used to be my local government headquarters until 1988, but we couldn’t because all the roads that lead to the town from my part of Borgu (now called Baruten in Kwara State) are practically impassable to motorists. (The roads in Benin Republic Borgu, which we visited, were as good as any road in America!)

But the lowest watermark of governmental absence in the life of Nigerians, for me, is the total collapse of primary education in Nigeria. When I grew up in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s, private primary schools were few and far between, and the existing ones at the time had a need to boldly inscribe on their signposts that they were “government approved” to legitimize their existence. Even so, private primary schools were almost completely absent in rural Nigeria.

During my last visit to Nigeria, the only primary schools that were in session in the whole of Kwara State (and this is true of most other states) were private primary schools. Government primary schools were closed because teachers were on strike to protest months of unpaid salaries. Several people told me even if teachers weren’t on strike people with even a little means have learned not to send their children to government primary schools because government schools have become the graveyards of learning and creativity.

This made me shed a tear. This is precisely where the intergenerational perpetuation of social and economic inequality starts. Only the children of the desperately poor go to government schools, which are hardly in session because teachers aren’t paid salaries. This ensures that children of the poor stand no earthly chance of breaking from the cycle of poverty and social oppression into which they are born. This is replicated at all levels of education.

I can go on, but the stark, unsettling truth is that ordinary Nigerians have no need for government, and government has no reason to exist. The only reason government exists in Nigeria now, it would seem, is to supervise the dispensation of our national patrimony to the ruling elite and to pauperize an already traumatized and dispossessed citizenry.

That is why a government that is incapable of providing basic necessities for its citizens to justify its existence is quick to remove subsidies from everything except the sybaritic lavishness of the ruling elites and their cronies. When French philosopher Voltaire said, “In general, the art of government consists of taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to another,” he could well be describing governance in Nigeria. 

But what is even more tragic than the incompetence and uselessness of government in Nigeria is the indolence and complacency of Nigeria’s hitherto vibrant and critical middle class. All that the Nigerian middle class does now is chatter idly on social media, engage in conspicuous consumption, and watch listlessly as the government abdicates its most basic responsibilities and robs the poor to enrich the rich.

In all my life, I had never seen the depth and ferocity of suffering that I saw in Nigeria. Vast swathes of people are writhing in excruciating existential pains as a direct result of the insensitive and intellectually lazy increase in the price of petrol, which has ignited an unprecedented hyperinflationary conflagration.

Most middle-class Nigerians I met during my visit appeared to be relieved that they have access to petrol irrespective of the price. They don’t pause to ponder that the next round of scarcity-first-and-price-increase-later is on the way, and that this might ultimately strip many of them of their current comfort and make them indistinguishable from the hordes of people who are struggling to stay alive in Nigeria.

When you combine a witless, ill-prepared, incompetent, and irresponsible government with a docile, self-satisfied middle class, you not only have a perverse anarchist paradise, you also have a perfect World Bank/IMF nirvana. If this trend continues, by the time Buhari is done, there would probably be no Nigeria to speak of. I hope and pray that I am wrong.



Friday, August 5, 2016

Problems of and solutions to Nigerian postgraduate education

By AA Muhammad-Oumar

What you wrote about the attitude of university lecturers is true, and in fact very charitable for in truth, in many respects, the situation on ground is much worse. The fact of the matter is that the Nigerian educational system has no room for inquiry, experimentation and rigorous analysis. It has no room for independent thinking, for arguing against the conventional and for developing confidence in the self.

 I remember vividly the case of a physics teacher during our “A” levels who was trying to explain the concept of acceleration, in particular the notion of per second, per second and he couldn’t make the class understand. After about twenty minutes of trying, he ended the lesson by saying frustratingly, “Look, this is what I was taught and that is what it is; you just remember it so that we can make progress!”


 Many of our classmates just laughed it away; only few were intelligent enough to understand the implication of that lecturer’s action, but they had nowhere to turn to and complain. And this was 1975.

Thus, it is very common today to ask students who vigorously enquire to please shut up and allow the class “to make progress” (oh, how I hate such exhortations)!

However, my concern is with those other lecturers who are diligent and hardworking but whom the system emasculates. I can spend hours writing on this but let me restrict myself to three incidences to highlight the problem. First, students are so used to being told what to do and what to write that most of them would not enquire and learn on their own. Well, what do you expect from a graduate student who receives his lessons via dictation by his lecturer for him to copy?

 So any lecturer who insists on rigour hits a wall with both the students and his fellow lecturers. He is petitioned against, and those in authority rarely bother to listen to his side of the story, but rule against him. Even those administrators who listen they dither when the result is out and more students fail than pass. This is aggravated by the mounting number of students who have to retake the course and made unacceptable when some of the students have powerful parents or guardians.

Second, the library system in Nigeria is pathetic. I can say with little fear of doubt or contradiction that our secondary school library (1969-1973) was better equipped than most current universities’ libraries. Not only that, there is hardly any library in the country that has inter-library requisition or loan system in place.

 Ironically, instead of the information age assisting greatly in scholarship, it actually detracts it in Nigeria. This is because the systems allows for blatant plagiarism. Many students given simply go to the internet and download [other people’s work], append their names and viola, they have fulfilled their duty! And they get away with it either because the lecturers simply couldn’t be bothered or because they don’t know better for that is how they acquired their qualifications too.

So, again, if one insists on doing the right thing he is labelled as harsh, wicked or sadistic. I remember vividly a student telling his lecturer (who was a senior lecturer) that what he was asked to do was not done by professor so and so. He was right.  Professor so and so doesn’t do that, but he was wrong to assume professor so and was right.

Where else in the world would you find a university system where once one is a professor (never mind how he got there) then that person is above the academic law and could do what he damn well pleases, literarily?

Finally, the university system in Nigeria has no self-regulating mechanism. Lecturers are rule onto themselves and woe be tide the student who demands his right or even asks for an explanation. Like you wrote, lecturers look at students’ works at their convenience and pleasure and there is no way of making them behave, except for the few students who have powerful parents or guardians either in the form of other senior colleagues or political appointees.

It is very common to see lecturers concentrate all their classes in the last couple of weeks or so to the end of the semester. Lecturers spend most of their time doing things other than their statutory duties, and the system tolerates this and even abets it by lack of regular power and very poor library system.

 The conventional wisdom in Nigerian tertiary education is that a lecturer is only expected on campus if he has a lecture to deliver, thereafter he is on his own. To make matters worse ASUU would side with their own against the student. I remember a case of a lecturer who was asked to head a committee on examination malpractice in the university, whose report pointed out that examination malpractice is not only limited to students but extends to lecturers too, and suggested sanctions for such erring lecturers. Yes, you guessed right: the report never saw the daylight. Local ASUU made sure of that.

In conclusion the task of correcting the tertiary educational system in Nigeria is enormous and requires multi-prong approach. The starting place is the senior secondary school, and this is where new graduating students from foreign universities can be of enormous help if given the chance. In other words employ such graduates and put them on the same pedestal as their colleagues in the universities with the option of transferring their services to the university after 3 to 5 years.
Secondly establish an ombudsman system for the universities where complaints can be made and addressed promptly.

Thirdly, part of the government’s agreement with ASUU should include the establishment of a self-regulating system that will ensure lecturers do not take undue advantage of their students.

Fourthly, make it mandatory for TETFUND to set aside at least 15% of its disbursements towards making tertiary libraries alive.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, a system should be evolved where plagiarism in any form is seriously sanctioned and widely publicised. The case of some universities subscribing to Turn-It-In © and grading levels of plagiarism as acceptable/tolerable or not should be done away with totally.

 There should be ZERO tolerance for ALL forms of plagiarism. Here is to hoping we’ll live long enough to see that day. After all, the academic status of India of the early 1970’s is not the same as that of today.


AA Muhammad-Oumar can be reached at aamoumar@gmail.com

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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