"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 09/08/07

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Divided by a Common Language: Comparing Nigerian, American and British English

By Farooq A. Kperogi 

This piece was originally serialized for eight weeks in my weekly column called "Notes from Atlanta" in the Abuja-based Weekly Trust newspaper. I am making it available to a wider audience because of the enthusiastic responses I received from Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike who followed the series in both the print and online editions of Weekly Trust. The discontinuities and awkward transitions you may notice in reading the piece are the result of the episodic nature of writing the column.

We all know that there is such a thing as British English; it is the progenitor of all subsequent "Englishes" (as professional linguists awkwardly call national and sub-regional varieties of the English language) in the world. And we do, of course, know that there is American English, not only because it is the earliest national variety to rebel against some of the quirky conventions of British English (a fact that prompted the celebrated Irish writer George Bernard Shaw to famously remark that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language"), but also because America's current preeminent position in the world ensures that its variety of English is now relentlessly universalized through an imperceptible but nonetheless powerful process of pop-culture-induced linguistic osmosis.

What of Nigerian English? Is there such a thing as Nigerian English? If there is, how is it different from and similar to British and American English? If there isn't why do we have such radically idiosyncratic usage patterns that set us apart from other users of the English language? And why should we care?

Let me start with the last question. We should care because English is not just another language; it is our national language—sadly. But more than that, it is now practically the lingua franca of the world. It is the primary international language in communications, information technology, entertainment, science, business and diplomacy. It is also, by international treaty, the official language for aerial and maritime communications, as well as one of the official languages of the United Nations, the European Union, and most international athletic organizations, including the International Olympic Committee.

That's not all. It is also the language of scholarship. Recently, for instance, the Science Citation Index reported that 95 percent of its articles were written in English, even though only half of these scientific articles came from authors in English-speaking countries. It has also been said that over 80 percent of information stored in the world's computers is in English.

That is why English is spoken by hundreds of millions of non-native speakers in the world today. If you take into account the fact that almost every educated Chinese person now speaks and writes some English, the number should be close to a billion. So trying to ignore the English language in today's world is like trying to avoid daylight: you can do it, but with an effort so demanding it reaches the point of absurdity.

I think it is not out of place for us to reflect on how we write and speak our own variety of English and in so doing develop a self-conscious knowledge of how our usage of the language in relation to its two dominant varieties converge and diverge. This may provide a springboard to start a process of codifying and taking pride in our idiosyncratic use of this foreign, eccentric language that we are forced to deal with both because of the peculiarities of our socio-historical experiences and because of the reality of the architecture of the current world setup, which privileges the English language over all other languages in the world—at least for now.

Before I explore the differences and similarities between Nigerian, American and British English based on my experiences, I think it's appropriate to briefly mention what motivates me to undertake this. First, right from an early stage in my educational career, I have often had an enduring obsession with language.

Perhaps, it is the compensation, in the psychiatric sense of the word, for my rather embarrassingly awful knowledge of the numerate disciplines, especially mathematics. (In Freudian psychoanalysis, compensation is an ego defense mechanism that conceals your undesirable shortcomings by exaggerating your desirable behavioral strengths).

Second, when I enrolled at the Bayero University, Kano for my bachelor's degree, I was originally in the English department. It was in my third year that I changed my major to Mass Communication. However, English was still my minor (or "subsidiary," as we called it in BUK) up to the end of my third year. And in my final year I sat in on almost all the fourth-year English classes that didn't conflict with my mass communication classes. My friends and classmates in English then, including the present acting editor of Daily Trust, Abdulazeez Abdullahi, used to wonder why I left the English department but couldn't sever my umbilical cord from it.

Well, it's because of my abiding, almost compulsive, interest in language. What's more, Bayero University's English department is one of Nigeria's leading universities in the systematic study of Nigerian English, thanks largely to the praiseworthy efforts of Professor David Roger Jowitt and his intellectual protégés. Jowitt, for those who don't know him, is a Cambridge-educated native speaker of English who has been a professor of English at BUK since 1987 and who has been teaching English in Nigerian tertiary institutions since the early 1960s. His 1991 book titled Nigerian English Usage: An Introduction is arguably the most perceptive book to date on the subject.

It was at BUK that I first became self-conscious of the deviations of Nigerian English, especially after taking a course called "Media English," which was essentially a survey of how English is used (and misused) in the Nigerian mass media. So some of the examples I will use to discuss the distinctiveness of Nigerian English in this article will be drawn from my recollections of that class—and from my reading of Professor Jowitt's richly insightful book. But a more robust corpus of idiosyncratic Nigerian English usage has emerged over the last couple of years since Jowitt's book came out, which nobody, at least to my knowledge, has captured in a systematic and self-conscious way. I hope to do that in the piece.

It seems to me that there are four fundamental sources of Nigerian English. The first source is what I call linguistic improvisation. There are many unique Nigerian socio-cultural thoughts that simply cannot be expressed in the "standard" form of the English language. So we either translate our local languages to take care of this lack, or we appropriate existing English words and phrases and imbue them with meanings that serve our communicative purposes. When Chinua Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart, for instance, that "proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten," he was consciously appropriating English lexical items to express a uniquely Igbo cultural thought, which doesn't make any sense to a native English speaker. (Thank God it is Achebe. They have been forced to learn what his distinctively Nigerian expressions mean).

A second source of Nigerian English is drawn from innocent grammatical errors initially committed by our media and political elite. These errors were repeated several times in the media and, in time, got fossilized and incorporated into our linguistic repertoire. This mode of language change, of course, takes place in all other varieties of English, including British and American English.

A third source is old-fashioned British English idioms and expressions that have lost currency in Britain since the 1960s. Idioms such as "bad eggs" and expressions such as "more power to your elbow" (usually rendered as "more grease to your elbow" in Nigeria) are intelligible only to older British people. (During my master's program in Louisiana, I took my minor again from English and was fortunate to be taught by a British professor of English with whom I discussed this issue a lot. So some of the examples I will give in the following weeks will also be drawn from my encounter with her.)

The fourth source is derived from Americanisms interspersed with British English to create a unique identity that is both American and British and, in a sense, neither American nor British.

It is important to stress that Nigerian English is not bad or substandard English. It is a legitimate national variety that has evolved, over several decades, out of our unique experiences as a post-colonial, polyglot nation.

However hard we might try, we can't help writing and speaking English in ways that reflect our socio-linguistic singularities. Even our own Wole Soyinka who thinks he speaks and writes better English than the Queen of England habitually betrays "Nigerianisms" in his writings. Or at least that's what the native speakers of the language think. For instance, when he was admitted into the Royal Society of Arts, the citation on his award read something like: "Mr. Soyinka is a prolific writer in the vernacular English of his own country."

I learned that Soyinka's pride was badly hurt when he read the citation. But it needn't be. It was Chinua Achebe who once said, in defense of his creative semantic and lexical contortions of the English language to express uniquely Nigerian thoughts that have no equivalents in English, that any language that has the cheek to leave its primordial shores and encroach on the territory of other people should learn to come to terms with the inevitable reality that it would be domesticated.

Conceptualizing Nigerian English
While I do not want to get caught up in the definitional and conceptual squabbles among professional linguists over the meaning, scope and content of Nigerian English, I think it is useful that I briefly operationalize my conception of it. By Nigerian English I do not mean Nigerian Pidgin English. Nor do I mean the English spoken by uneducated and barely educated Nigerians. I mean the variety of English that is broadly spoken and written by Nigeria's literary, intellectual, political, and media elite across the regional and ethnic spectra of Nigeria.

I know this definition is barefacedly elitist. But this is true of all "standard" varieties of all "modern" languages in the world. What is called British Standard English, for instance, is no more than the idiosyncratic usage of the language by the English royalty—and by the political, intellectual, literary, and media elite of the country. The social and intellectual snobbery of the French language is even more blatant. There is a French language academy that not only consciously privileges the elite dialect of the language but also polices its usage all over the world.

An additional problem with my definition is that Nigerian English has not yet been purposively standardized. Our English teachers still dismiss it as mere "bad English." I remember that when I served as an English language examiner for the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) in 1997, our team leader instructed us to penalize students who wrote "Nigerian English." The irony, however, is that no Nigerian who was educated at home, including those who deride Nigerian English, can avoid speaking or writing it either consciously or unconsciously.

Take as an example one cocky friend of mine who is so self-assured about his English language skills that he dismissed my attempt at chronicling and systematizing Nigerian English usage as a glorification of "bad English." For him, there is no such thing as Nigerian English. There is only uneducated English, which overzealous, starry-eyed idealists like me want to intellectualize, he said. Fair enough.

After he told me that, I asked him what he does on the seventh day of the birth of his children. "I do the naming ceremony, of course," he said. I asked him again what he says to people when he meets them working. "I say 'well done' to them," he said. I told him that these are uniquely Nigerian expressions, as I will show shortly. He was stunned, even embarrassed. But as I said last week, he needn't be.

Well, perhaps, it is not altogether unreasonable to aspire to write and speak English that closely approximates the way it is written and spoken in America and Britain, especially because of concerns for mutual intelligibility. However, when the existing semantic and syntactic resources of the English language are miserably incapable of serving our communicative needs, we are left with only two options: neologism (that is, invention of new words or phrases) and semantic extension (that is, encoding existing English words and phrases with meanings that are absent in the original, but which encapsulate our unique socio-linguistic experiences).

Having made these prefatory remarks, let me proceed to compare Nigerian English with American and British English. In doing this, I will be guided by the four main fountains of Nigerian English that I identified last week: linguistic improvisation, old-fashioned British expressions, initial usage errors fossilized over time and incorporated into our linguistic repertory, and a mishmash of British and American English.

Linguistic improvisation
Perhaps the most contemporary example of our linguistic creativity is the appropriation and contortion of the word "flash"— and its inflections "flashing" and "flasher"—in our mobile telephonic vocabulary. Neither American English nor British English—nor, for that matter, any other variety of English in the world— uses these words the way we do. The closest semantic equivalent in both British and American English to what we call "flashing" is "buzz." If you tell an American or a Briton that you have "flashed" their phone, they will probably have no earthly clue what you're talking about.

What of "flasher"? Well, in both British and American English, a flasher is someone, mostly a man, who has a compulsive desire to expose his genitals in public! The last time I was in Nigeria, a friend of mine who had "buzzed" my phone incessantly jokingly told me that he was a "professional flasher"! He had no idea what a "flasher"— or, even worse, a "professional flasher"— means in standard American and British English until I told him. He was, of course, shocked. He asked if he could use the word "buzzer" since I said "buzz" is the closest word that describes the sense we convey when we say we "flash" someone's phone. But buzzer is just another word for a doorbell.

Similarly, our use of the phrase "well done" as a form of salutation for someone who is working is peculiarly Nigerian. We use it to approximate such expressions as "sannu da aiki" in Hausa, "eku ise" in Yoruba, "ka soburu" in Batonu (my language), which have no parallels in American and British English. In both American and British English, "well done" either functions as an adjective to describe thoroughly cooked food or meat (Example: I like my food well done), or as an exclamation expressive of applause— synonymous with "bravo." It is also used as an adjective to describe something that has been executed with diligence and skill. It is not part of the cultural repertoire of people in the West to reserve a special form of salutation for people who are working.

Another distinctively Nigerian expression is "naming ceremony." Since the native speakers of the English language do not celebrate the christening of their children the way we do in Nigeria, they have no need for a "naming ceremony." But we do. So we creatively coined it.

What of the expression, "quite an age!" to mean "long time, no see"? (The phrase "long time no see," by the way, was originally an exclusively Chinese English expression before it was accepted into Standard British English. Perhaps some of our Nigerian coinages will also be incorporated into standard American and British English). Well, it is also a Nigerian improvisation. Interestingly, I learned that expression from my secondary school English teacher who was such a fastidious semantic purist that he wanted us to write and speak English in ways that would make the Queen of England envious! I actually only realized that the expression is distinctly Nigerian when neither my American friends nor my British professor could decipher it.

The way we use the word "sorry" is also a good example of linguistic creativity. We have expanded the word's original native English meaning from a mere exclamation to indicate an apology to an exclamation to express concern for a misfortune (such as when someone skips a step and falls). We use it whether or not we are responsible for the misfortune. This usage of the word, which is completely absent in American and British English, is an approximation of such expressions as "sannu fa" in Hausa, "pele o" in Yoruba, "ndo" in Igbo, "kpure kpure" in Batonu, etc. The American and British equivalents seem very distant and lacking in empathy and warmth.

We also have a whole host of euphemisms, especially for excretory activities, that absolutely make no sense in American and British English. For instance, we use the expression "spoil the air" (or its other variations such as "pollute the air" or simply "pollute") to mean fart. Most Nigerian cultures are prudish and resent directness in discussing excretory activities.

Another interesting euphemism, which I too didn't know was uniquely Nigerian until I came to the United States, is the expression "to ease oneself," which we use to cover a multitude of sins in the toilet! Where we would say "I want to ease myself," Americans would say "I need to go to the bathroom" or, if it's a public building, "I need to go to the restroom." One day I told a friend in Louisiana that I wanted to "ease myself." He was completely lost. When I had occasion to meet with my British professor of English, I told her about this. (We used to spend our spare time ridiculing American English since Nigerian English is a close cousin—or, if you like, a child—of British English.) I told her Americans had no clue what I meant when I said I wanted to "ease myself."

She was silent for an uncomfortably long time. Then she said, "I am afraid I too have no idea what that means." I knew then I was alone.

However, my least favorite of our linguistic improvisations is the word "detribalized" as an adjective to describe someone who transcends narrow ethnic allegiances. This usage of the word derives from our wrong-headed and ignorant use of the word "tribe" to describe our ethnicities. In its modern usage, tribe is a condescending, even derogatory, word that Europeans and people of European descent reserve only for people they consider inferior. You will never hear of the English tribe or the German tribe or, in fact, the Japanese or Chinese tribes.

In American and British English, "detribalize" is a verb used condescendingly to imply that "culturally superior" Europeans have caused a people to lose their "savage" cultural identities. In other words, to detribalize a person or a people is to Europeanize or westernize them. It is to make them lose their language, their customs, their mores—generally things that make them "primitive" by European standards. In Australia, for example, Europeans forcefully adopted Aboriginal children and "detribalized" them by taking them to white foster homes so that they would lose all connections with their original culture and thereby become "civilized."

Only Nigerians use "detribalized" as an adjective. I once read an interview that the late Bola Ige granted to a newspaper where he resented being described as "detribalized." I was happy that a prominent Nigerian finally saw through the stupidity of the word. But then he said he preferred to be described as "untribalized." Well, no such word exists in any dictionary, and it is just as self-denigrating as "detribalized."

Another example of linguistic improvisation in Nigerian English is the use of the expression "co-wife" or "co-wives" to refer to female partners in polygamous marriages. Americans and Britons do not have an equivalent lexical notation for this since polygamy (derisively called bigamy here) is, in fact, a crime for which people go to prison. I am curious to know, though, how Mormons (members of a heretical Christian sect that practices polygamy in the state of Utah here in the U.S.) refer to "co-wives."

We have also expanded the meaning of "playmates" or "joking partners" to refer to people in traditionally and historically sanctioned, semi-ritualized joking relationships, which permit the kind of privileged familiarity that leads us to tolerate and even laugh at the abusive teasing that goes on between specified ethnic groups, trades, families, etc.

For instance, members of my ethnic group, the Batonu (also called Bariba by Yoruba people), have a "joking relationship" with Kanuri, Fulani, and Zarma people. (The Zarma are the second most populous but most politically powerful ethnic group in Niger Republic). Nupe people have a "joking relationship" with Katsina people. Zaria and Suleja people have a "joking relationship." The examples are legion. Well, this tradition has no parallel in Western cultures. So they have no name for it. However, these terms are now firmly established in the literature of anthropology and are well on their way to being incorporated into British and American English—if that has not already happened.

In the last 10 years or so, it has become customary for us to arrange "send-forth parties" as an organized expression of goodwill for people who are about to leave us for a new place or for a new venture. This expression, which seems to have originated as a coinage by Nigerian born-again Christians, would certainly make no sense to many Americans and Britons. Its equivalent in standard British and American English is "send-off" (note that it is NOT "send-off party" because "send-off" is a noun, not an adjective) or "farewell celebration" or, rarely, "bon voyage." Americans also call it a "leaving party."

I guess Nigerians coined the expression "send-forth party" because "send-off" seems distant, even hostile. The adverb "forth" appears to us to convey a connotation of forward motion, of advancement, while "off" strikes us as suggesting departure with no expectation of return. So we think that to say we send people off creates the impression that we derive perverse pleasure in their departure from us. But linguists would call this reasoning naïve, if not downright ignorant, because the definition of an idiom—which is what this phrase is— is that it is an expression "whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the individual words that make it up."

Other examples of neologisms that are exclusively Nigerian are "chewing stick," "pounded yam," "K-legged" (called "knock-kneed" in British and American English), "next tomorrow" to mean the day after tomorrow, "take in" meaning to become pregnant, "put to bed" meaning to give birth to a child, "not on seat" to mean not in the office, etc.

Most of these expressions are utterly incomprehensible to native speakers of the English language. But I think that's no reason to stop using them when we communicate with each other. However, we need to know that these expressions are distinctly Nigerian so that when we have cause to tell a non-Nigerian interlocutor that we've not been "on seat" because our first wife has just "put to bed" and her "co-wife" has just "taken in," we will not be surprised when he is perfectly clueless! As I cannot exhaust all the examples of Nigerian linguistic improvisation in this series, let me turn to the next subsection.

Old-fashioned British English
Old-fashioned British English is a robust resource for Nigerian English. Such expressions as "bad eggs" to mean bad people, "men of the underworld" to refer to criminals, "harlot" as a synonym for a prostitute, "parastatal," to denote an autonomous sub-unit of a government ministry, "trafficator" to mean indicator or blinker (what Americans also call turn indicator or turn signal), "trafficate" to mean "use the indicator," "vulcanise" to mean repair a puncture—and "vulcaniser to mean someone who "vulcanises"— "issues" to mean children, (as in "she has two issues for him") etc have lost currency in Britain since the 1960s. So is the pejorative word "kinsmen" still used in our newspapers to mean townsfolk or townspeople or, sometimes, members of one's ethnic group.

These expressions sound quaintly outmoded to many Britons—the same way that a modern Hausa speaker feels when someone uses the word "bisa" instead of "sama" to refer to the sky. Only British citizens who are at least 50 years old have any inkling what some of these words mean.

And as I mentioned earlier, the Irish English expression "more power to your elbow" (often distorted to "more grease to your elbow" in Nigerian English) is a British archaism. But why do we render it as "more grease to your elbow"? It seems to me that it is because of the false attraction of the unrelated idiom "elbow grease," which simply means hard work, that is, the use of physical energy. (Example: the job of a carpenter requires a lot of elbow grease.)

Usage errors normalized over time This is where Nigerian grammarians argue intensely. Should we treat clear cases of usage errors as legitimate deviations that deserve to be dignified and incorporated into the corpus of Nigerian English? Are we not rewarding sloppiness and intellectual laziness—and ridiculing ourselves in the process— if we do that? I don't have a straightforward answer to this legitimate concern.

But the normalization of usage errors that are repeated by the educated elite is not exclusive to Nigerian English. There is a surfeit of such examples in British and American Standard English, the most prominent being the misuse of the phrase "due to" by Queen Elizabeth II. In traditional grammar, "due" is an adjective, and when it is followed by the preposition "to" it should be attached to a noun (example: the cancellation of the event was due to the rain). The use of "due to" at the beginning of a sentence in the sense of "because of" or "owing to" was considered uneducated. But when the Queen, in a Speech from the Throne, said "Due to inability to market their grain, prairie farmers have been faced for some time with a serious shortage," this "uneducated" usage gained respectability.

A more recent example is the use of the word "illegals" by the American media to refer to illegal immigrants. The word initially met with hostility from grammarians here because "illegal" is said to be an adjective and should not be used as a noun. But this usage is now gradually being accepted.

Similarly, the use of the pronouns "them" and "their" as gender-neutral, generic forms (as in, "everybody should bring THEIR book") now enjoys wide currency in both British and American English, even though it was once considered an unpardonable solecism. The time-honored admonition against the use of conjunctions (such as "and" and "but") to start a sentence is also no longer obeyed anywhere. And that's why this sentence begins with "and"!

Another example is "one another" and "each other." It used to be the rule that "each other" referred to two people or things and "one another" referred to three or more people or things. Today, native speakers of the English language no longer recognize this distinction. In fact, the phrase "one another" seems to have fallen into disuse.

Similarly, the expression "both the two of them," which is now perfectly acceptable in American English, was initially greeted with hostility by syntacticians who thought (rightly, I think) that it was gratuitously tautological since "both" expresses "two-ness." I have heard at least five American professors say "both the two of them." So let's not feel inadequate because we have also congealed and normalized our own usage errors.

Let me begin this sub-section with a front-page headline in the Weekly Trust that reads: "Guard defiles neighbour's daughter." In British and American Standard English, to defile is to make dirty—literally and metaphorically. For instance, you can defile a river or a holy place, but "defile" is never used in British and American English to mean rape, which was the sense that headline intended to convey. This usage error is now very common in the Nigerian media.

In a related case, we also use the word "disvirgin" to mean "deprive of virginity." But there is no word like "disvirgin" in ANY English dictionary. Americans and Britons use "deflower" to express the sense we convey when we use the word "disvirgin" (example: "this dirty old man deflowered many young girls in the village"). Curiously, "deflower" is not part of our active idiolect. How did we miss it?

Contemporary Nigerian usage has even extended the original sense of deflowering in the use of the word "disvirgin." Now when people use their passports (which we also uniquely call "international passports") for the first time, they say they have "disvirgined" their "international passport"! I heard this extension of the word for the first time in 2004 when I boarded the same plane to Dublin, Ireland, with young, first-time Nigerian travelers. They told me they were excited that they had "disvirgined" their "international passports."

Another rich wellspring of this strand of Nigerian English comes from the confusion of parts of speech. An example of this kind of usage error that has gained currency—and respectability—is the way we use the word "opportune." We use this word as if it were a verb when, in reality, it's an adjective in British and American English. It's common to hear our politicians say "I have been opportuned to serve my people"—or suchlike expression. Opportune, which simply means "well-timed" (example: "the opportune arrival of the policeman saved him") cannot have a past tense because it is not a verb; it's an adjective. The error arises, perhaps, from thinking that "opportune" is a derivative of "opportunity." It is not.

To make ourselves comprehensible to non-Nigerians, we should replace all expressions that have the phrase "been opportuned" with "have the opportunity." Instead of saying "I have been opportuned to serve my country," we should say "I have the opportunity to serve my country." An even neater alternative is to replace "opportuned" with "privileged" so that the sentence above will read: "I have been privileged to serve my country."

The widespread usage of the phrase "barbing salon" to mean hairdressing salon or barber's shop— and "barb" to mean have a haircut— belong to this category of usage error. We use "barb" as a back formation from barber—a hairdresser who cuts hair and shaves beards as a trade. But in American and British English, "barb" denotes, among several meanings, the pointed part of a type of wire.

It is also used metaphorically to refer to an aggressive remark directed at a person. When it is used as a verb, it usually means to "provide with barbs," that is, to put barbs in a fence. The use of "barb" to mean have a haircut is entirely meaningless to native speakers of the English language. So is the phrase "barbing salon."

Another usage error that enjoys wide currency in Nigerian English is the addition of the "-ly" forms to words that are already adverbs. Prominent examples are "outrightly" and "downrightly"--words that do not exist in any English dictionary. In British and American Standard English, "outright" and "downright" are both adjectives and adverbs, and do not take the "-ly" form in the sense of "beautifully," "utterly," etc.

I have also heard and read of people being referred to as "mediocres" in the Nigerian media and in demotic speech. In British and America English, mediocre (meaning "moderate to inferior in quality" if applied to things, or "lacking exceptional quality or ability" if applied to human beings) is not a noun; it's an adjective. So, you can say "he is a mediocre lawyer," but not "the lawyer is a mediocre." It is the same with "talkative." It is also an adjective, not a noun. So, instead of saying, "he is a talkative," Americans and Britons would say, "he is talkative" or "he is a talkative person."

It is also a universal error in Nigeria to use the non-existent word "upliftment" as an equivalent word for improvement. We invented it as a forward-formation from "uplift." But in American and British Standard English, "uplift" is both a verb and a noun. For instance, where we would say, "this administration is committed to the moral upliftment of the society," American and British speakers would say, "this administration is committed to the moral uplift of the society."

Still on the confusion of parts of speech, we sometimes use expressions like "off the light," "on the light," etc as if "off" and "on" were verbs. Put/switch off/on the light would be the preferred alternatives in American and British English. When "off" is used as a verb in informal American English, it means to murder.

Does the word "smoothen" exist? Well, only in informal, nonstandard American English. In standard American and British English, "smooth" is both an adjective and a verb." For instance, where we would say, "the ministerial nominee bribed the senators to smoothen the way toward his confirmation," educated American and British speakers would replace "smoothen" with "smooth."

What of the expressions "free-for-all fight" and "reprisal attacks"? In American and British English, they would be considered superfluous. A "free-for-all" means a noisy fight in a crowd. To add "fight" to "free-for-all" is overkill! Similarly, "reprisal" is a noun, which means a retaliatory attack against an enemy. To add "attack" to "reprisal" is also pleonastic, as grammarians describe the act of using more words than are necessary. The phrase "electioneering campaign" is also a distinctly Nigerian tautology. Electioneering is NOT an adjective; it's a noun, which means "political campaign." So the phrase "electioneering campaign" will translate into "political campaign campaign"!

Other words that we have invented based on false analogies are"godfatherism," "patronizers" ("patrons" in American and British English, as in: "patrons of a brothel" instead of "patronizers of a brothel"), "mannerless" ("ill-mannered" in American and British English; this seems more like an archaism than a Nigerian coinage), "mannered" (instead of "well-behaved" or "well-mannered"; "mannered" actually means having unnatural mannerisms).

Still on this topic, last week, the Nigerian Tribune wrote something to the effect that Yar'Adua had "upturned most of the decisions of Obasanjo." During the same week, another senior journalist wrote about logic being "upturned." It seems that we are mistaking "overturn" for "upturn." They are two different, unrelated words.

When "upturn" is used as a noun in British and American English (Americans prefer the word "uptrend" when it is used in this sense), it usually means an upward movement or improvement in business activity, etc (example: Since Yar'Adua became president, there has been an upturn in the economy). When the word 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 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. In American and British English, "upturned" is never used as a verb in the sense of "reverse" or "overturn."

Before I say the last word on this subsection, let me quickly point out that the words "letter-headed paper" (simply "letterhead" in British and American English), "vandalisation" ("vandalism" in American and British English) "insultive" ("insulting" in American and British English) and "overspeed" ("full speed" or "speeding" in American and British English, as in: "I got a ticket for speeding"), are usage errors that are peculiarly Nigerian.

Another province of usage errors from which Nigerian English has emerged and continues to emerge is the misuse (or, in some cases, lack of use) of prepositions. For instance, we are fond of saying that a place is "conducive" without adding the preposition "to" to make a complete sense—that is, by the standards of American and British English where "conducive" ALWAYS co-occurs with the preposition "to." For instance, instead of saying, "our universities are not conducive," Britons and Americans would say "our universities are not conducive TO learning."

Also look at these sentences: "I hereby apply for a loan to enable me buy a car," "Atiku contested the 2007 presidential election," "he replied my letter." What's wrong with these sentences? Well, they are all missing in prepositions by the standards of American and British English. In the first sentence the preposition "to" is missing. That is, it should have been "… to enable me TO buy a car." "Enable" and "to" are indissolubly "married" in American and British English.

The second sentence is wrong (in American and British English, that is) if we mean that Atiku vied for an election in 2007. To contest something is to dispute it or to make it the subject of litigation. But to contest FOR something is to struggle to gain power or control. So the first sentence should read "Atiku contested FOR the 2007 presidential election" if we mean that he competed with Yar'Adua for the position of president. Without "FOR" in the sentence, we would mean that he is in court to dispute the outcome of the election. This distinction is important for mutual intelligibility in international communication in English. In the third sentence the preposition "to" is also missing. "Reply" ALWAYS co-occurs with "to" in British and American English. (Example: he replied TO my letter).

However, while we gleefully omit these pesky prepositions when we use "enable," "contest," "reply," etc, we gladly pluck some from the air and insert them where they are normally not used in American and British English. An example is the phrase "request FOR." In American and British English "request" is never followed by a preposition (example: "I requested a loan from my boss" instead of "I requested for a loan from my boss"). Of course, when "request" is used as a noun, it can co-occur with the preposition "to."

Before I say the last word on prepositions, I should mention that Americans are probably as careless with prepositions as we are. I mentioned this when I wrote about my baptism of fire in American English on this page about two years ago. For instance, it is typical to hear Americans—educated and uneducated alike— say, "I am waiting on the bus" when they actually mean "I am waiting for the bus." To wait on somebody or something is to work for, or be a servant to, somebody or something. At first, I thought Americans in their usual "rebellion" had subverted British English prepositions (in the fashion of "different than," "in behalf of," etc). But I found out that it is actually a usage error even by the standards of American English.

One day, in 2005, an American journalism professor friend mine in Louisiana who is notoriously finicky about correct grammar (to the annoyance of his students) told me he was "waiting on" the chair of our department. (I was on very friendly terms with him and we often joked about grammar, especially about the occasionally humorous differences between American and British English). When he returned to his office, I said to him: "Doc, I didn't know you are now a servant to the chair of our department." He knew I was up to some mischief, but he couldn't immediately figure out what it was.

When I explained to him why I called him a servant, I thought he would say I was wrong by the standards of American English. But he didn't. He instead said, "Good catch, Farooq. You got me there!"

But I have heard this mistake repeated by many educated Americans with such regularity that I think the rule will soon change. Well, excuse the digression.

I want to call attention to the phrase "complimentary card," which we use to denote what Americans and Britons call "business card." This phrase has to be the most senseless usage error we have normalized, one that will leave even the most perceptive non-Nigerian English speaker irredeemably clueless.

The word "complimentary" simply means "free," that is, costing nothing (example: "the author gave me a complimentary copy of his new book"). So a "complimentary card" simply means a "free card." There is nothing in the phrase to suggest that we are talking of a card on which are printed a person's name, contact details and business affiliation. When I thought about this sometime ago, I concluded that the phrase emerged probably out of a shortening of "complimentary business card." But this doesn't seem like a reasonable assumption to make because the phrase will be superfluous since no one ever sells business cards in the first place. It only makes sense to describe something as complimentary if it is normally sold.

Another usage error is the use of "bag" where "earn" or "receive" would be the appropriate word in British and American English. In our newspapers, it is usual to read that someone has "bagged" a degree or an award or a chieftaincy title. I have not the faintest idea how we came about this usage. But it is neither American nor British. And I confirmed this from my colleagues here last week. I struck up a conversation about education and told them that I "bagged" my bachelor's degree in mass communication from Bayero University in Nigeria. One of them said, "Sorry, what did you say you did to your bachelor's degree in Nigeria?"


"I bagged it," I insisted, amusing myself in the process.

"Is that the British English way to say that you, er, failed—sorry passed— your degree?"

"No, that's the Nigerian English expression to say I EARNED it."

"Oh, I see. I would never have guessed."

So there you have it. To Americans—and Britons—to bag something is simply to put it into a bag—literally. The expression is also used informally to mean kill or capture an animal during hunting (example: "I bagged an antelope when I went hunting yesterday"). In slangy British speech, it can also mean to score a goal, point, etc (example: "Nigeria bagged two goals yesterday in the African Cup of Nations in Algiers") or to quit or skip or abandon something (example: "I bagged my English class today").

Other widespread usage errors are the use of the phrase "hot drink" to mean "hard drink," that is, alcoholic beverage or liquor; "talk less of" to mean "let alone" or "much less"; "of recent" to mean "recently" on the model of "of late"; "plate-number" instead of "number-plate"; "instalmentally" (a non-existent word) instead of "in instalments"—or "installments," if you're enamored of American spellings like I am!— "spent horse" instead of "spent force" (example: "that politician is now a spent force"); "wash a film" instead of "develop a film;" "beer parlor," instead of "bar"; "rentage" instead of "rent."

There is another category of usage errors in Nigeria that I like to call bad grammar about grammar. By this I mean our tendency to misuse and encipher the terminologies of grammarians with our unique meanings. For instance, we use "grammar" to mean unfamiliar words, what George Orwell once elegantly called "exaggerated Latinisms." Grammar merely means the branch of linguistics that is concerned with syntax (arrangement of words in sentences), morphology (rules for forming words) and, sometimes, semantics (study of meaning).

What of "jargon"? I grew up thinking that "jargon" meant grammatically incorrect, nonsensical English. While memorizing the dictionary in my teens, I remember being concerned that the meaning of "jargon" that I encountered in the dictionary completely displaced what I initially thought it meant. I thought my dictionary was probably not advanced enough to capture the whole range of significations of the word.

The word only means the specialized technical vocabulary of a group or a discipline, usually not accessible to the general populace, as in, the jargon of the legal/medical/journalistic profession. But it is not unusual to hear many educated Nigerians tell people, in a state of anger, that they are "speaking jargons" even when the accused are speaking plain English! I guess it's because the word almost sounds like " jagajaga"— a Nigerian Pidgin English word that encapsulates everything that we deem objectionable.

Then you have "colloquial English," which we use to mean bad, old-fashioned English. In truth, however, colloquial English simply means conversational English, that is, informal spoken English as opposed to formal written English. Everybody—from Britain to America to Nigeria—speaks colloquial English when they speak in casual, everyday settings. Perhaps, we have such a negative view of the word "colloquial" because it almost sounds like "colonial," a word that now has a pejorative connotation in Nigeria and elsewhere.

In the same category, you have "Queen's English." We often say people speak—and, rather oddly, write— the Queen's English when we are impressed with their command of the English language. However, the Queen's English, also called Received Pronunciation (or just RP), now simply means English as SPOKEN (not written) by educated people in southeastern England. It is also the accent taught in British public schools and, until recently, it was the only pronunciation used in British broadcasting. There is no way a Nigerian who did not grow up in southern England—or who didn't attend a British public school— can speak the Queen's English. To use the expression as a synonym for "Standard English" is obsolete even in British English.

Another major obtrusive usage error that we have thoroughly internalized is the use of the phrase "secret cults" to refer to semi- ritualized sodalities of university students. The phrase "secret cults" will certainly be utterly indecipherable, even mystifying, to the average American or Briton for a number of reasons.

First, in the popular imagination, "cult" is often primarily associated with fanatical and unorthodox religious groups under the guidance of a charismatic and authoritarian leader. Our "secret cults" don't conform to this conception.

Second, the combination of "secret" and "cult" is decidedly superfluous because cults would not be cults if they weren't secret in the first place. It's more logical to say "secret society" than to say "secret cult."

Third, Americans have similar, although less violence-prone, semi-ritualized sodalities in their universities, which they call "fraternities" (when they are composed of male undergraduates) or "sororities" (when they are composed of female undergraduates).

Like our "secret cults," fraternities (which students here simply call "frats") and sororities are local or national organizations of undergraduates, primarily for social purposes, but usually with secret initiation and rites, and a name composed of two or three Greek letters. Our "secret cults," except for the gang violence often associated with them, are basically similar to fraternities in American universities in almost every sense.

For instance, here too, like in Nigeria, fraternity members are periodically expelled from school for "hazing," that is, the offense of initiation of new members into fraternities by exacting humiliating performances from or playing rough practical jokes upon them. Examples include forcing new members to perform belittling baptismal rites, etc. However, hazing is rare among sororities, as far as I know. So are instances of violence between rival fraternities, although intense rivalry does exist among them, too.

There is also this interesting reversal of meaning in the way we use the words "managing" and "surviving" in Nigerian English and British/American English. When we say we are "managing" in Nigeria we usually mean that we are not doing well, that we are almost on the edge of existence (example: My brother, the country is hard. I am just managing). In American and British English, however, to be managing is to be successful, to achieve one's goals. So where we would say we are "managing," Americans and Britons would say they are "just surviving." To us, however, to be surviving is to overcome, to be in control.

An American researcher called Rachel Reynolds who wrote about the Nigerian immigrant experience in America for an academic journal was struck by this intriguing dissimilarity in our usage of these words. She interviewed Nigerian immigrants in Chicago in the course of her research. Even though her interviewees didn't seem content with their material lot in America, they said they were "not surviving," that they were just "managing." She was initially dumb-stricken. When she finally figured out that we use "managing" to mean "surviving" and "surviving" to mean "managing," she entitled her article: "'We Are Not Surviving, We Are Managing': the Constitution of a Nigerian Diaspora along the Contours of the Global Economy."

Another Nigerian English expression that appears in British English but with an entirely unrelated meaning is "go-slow." We use "go-slow" to mean traffic jam—what Americans also call "snarl-up." In British English, however, "go-slow" is a form of industrial protest where workers, instead of going on an out-and-out strike, deliberately slow down work in order to win demands from their employers. (Americans call this a "slowdown"). So if you are in Britain and you tell your employer that you were late to work because of a "go-slow," he would probably think you're on some kind of a one-man strike! It's also important to note that in informal American English, "go-slow" is used as an adjective to mean "deliberate and careful" (example: Yar'Adua's go-slow effort to maintain a sense of continuity and order).

In a related sense, some Nigerians use the expression "traffic holdup" as an alternative to "go-slow," which they probably recognize as inappropriate by the standards of British English. This expression will certainly be graspable (although it will sound a little quaint) to British speakers. But it will be entirely confusing to the average American. Although Britons sometimes use "holdup" as an alternative to traffic jam, they do not prefix "traffic" to "holdup"; they simply say "holdup." And in both American and British English (especially in American English), a holdup can mean an armed robbery. So if you tell an American that you had a "traffic holdup," he might think that you were robbed at gunpoint in a traffic jam.

Something else. An American who has lived in Nigeria for a number of years once told me that she used to be confused when people said to her: "you are (highly) welcome, madam!" For us Nigerians, that phrase is simply a grand way of saying "welcome," but for Americans—and Britons—the phrase "you're welcome" is only used as a polite response to "thank you." So it used to confuse her a great deal that people would say "you are welcome, madam" to her even when she didn't say "thank you" to them.

And in our curriculum vitas (what Americans call résumés; in America, unlike in Nigeria and Britain, "CV" is used only to mean the summary of the academic and work history of university teachers) we have a section we call "working experience." The equivalent of that phrase in American and British English is "work experience."

And this is no nitpicking. When "working" is used as an adjective, it can mean "just adequate for practical use" (example: I am not an IT expert; I just have a working knowledge of the computer). It can also mean "adopted on a temporary basis for further work" (example: This is just a working draft. The final paper will be issued tomorrow). So, to describe your job experience—which you probably accumulated over several years—as a "working experience" is to do a great disservice to yourself in America and Britain. Maybe I am being overdramatic here; they will probably understand that you mean "work experience." But it doesn't hurt to know the difference.

Again, in our written English, it is common to find the idiom "over and above" used as if it were an intensifier. (An intensifier is a word or expression that has little meaning except to make stronger the meaning it modifies). For instance, it's usual to come across expressions like, "He was promoted over and above me," where "over and above" merely intensifies the sense that someone was favored to our disadvantage in a promotion exercise. But in both American and British English, "over and above" only means "in addition to" or "besides" (example: they made a profit over and above the goodwill they got). Anytime you replace "in addition to" with "over and above" and it doesn't add up, you're probably misusing the idiom "over and above"— by the standards of American and British English.

Then we use the phrase "sequel to" in ways that appear to detach the word "sequel" from its original meaning in British and American English. A sequel means a continuation—or a part added to a book that continues and extends it. But you find sentences like this in our newspapers: "sequel to his commitment to tackle the problems of the Niger Delta, President Yar'Adua has commissioned…." Replace "continuation" with "sequel" and see what sense the sentence makes. Perhaps, if the sentence had started like this: "as a sequel to…," it would have made more sense because it would be synonymous with "as a continuation of…."

We also use expressions like "you can be rest assured that…," instead of "you can rest assured that…"; "he has long legs" instead of "he is well-connected"; "one hell of trouble" instead of "one hell of a lot of trouble"; "oil bunkering" instead of "oil theft"— when "bunker" is used as a verb, it simply means "to fill with oil." The word "bunkerer" is non-existent in British and American English.

I want to call attention to another source of Nigerian English: the distortion of popular phrases and expressions. For instance, we say "he is in soup" instead of "he is in THE soup" to mean that someone is in trouble. This error emerged primarily, I think, from Nigerian journalese, that is, because of the need for our newspaper subeditors to dispense with definite and indefinite articles in casting headlines in view of the constraints of space in newspapers.

For instance, a recent headline in the Nigerian Tribune read something like "Tony Aninie in soup," which is perfectly acceptable in headline writing because, as a rule, headlines dispense with articles and conjunctions. But from being headline language, "in soup" has made its way to popular speech.

Then you have expressions like "you cannot eat your cake and have it" instead of the rather illogical but nonetheless correct "you cannot have your cake and eat it." Evi Edna Ogoli's 1980s hit song titled, "You can never eat your cake and have it" especially popularized and conferred respectability on this usage error. 

But we are not alone in the practice of distorting the structure and content of popular expressions. All speakers of the English language—from Britain to America— have been "complicit" with some form of distortion of popular sayings and aphorisms.

For instance, the popular expression "blood, sweat and tears" is actually a distortion of Winston Churchill's famous wartime speech to the British nation. His exact words were: "blood, toil, tears, and sweat." The expression "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" is a distortion of "a little learning is a dangerous thing." The expression "there is method in my madness" is a misquotation of a passage from Shakespeare's Hamlet where Polonius observed, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." Likewise, the expression "Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink" is a misquotation of British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's line in Ancient Mariner. In it he wrote: "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

The examples are numerous. But we have all got used to these misquotations—or are not even conscious of them in the first place—because they are committed by the most educated people in the English-speaking world and have been passed down to us. So we in Nigeria are only adding to a list that is already too long.

Such expressions as "could you remember…," "if you could remember…,"etc, which are very popular in Nigeria, sound odd in American and British English. "Could" is merely the past tense of the auxiliary verb "can." The only occasion that "could" is appropriate in the present tense in American and British English is when it is used to request polite permission (example: could I have the bag, please?).

And there are words that started as student slang in southern universities which have now been incorporated into mainstream educated usage in the whole of Nigeria. An example I can think of now is "gist." We now use this word both as a noun and as a verb to mean chitchat or gossip (examples: he gisted me about his affairs with that girl. I have juicy gist for you). This is completely meaningless in American and British English where "gist" is used only as a noun to mean "the central meaning or theme of a speech or literary work" or "the choicest or most essential or most vital part of some idea or experience" (example: the gist of Atiku's petition is that Yar'Adua's election should be invalidated). The synonyms for gist in American and British English are nitty-gritty, kernel, substance, etc.

We also impose the plural forms on words and expressions that don't normally have them in British and American English. Examples are: "cutleries," "an advice" (instead of "a piece of advice"), " a good news" (instead of simply "good news"), "luggages," "baggages," "informations" (instead of "bits/pieces of information") "invectives," "equipments," "slangs" (slang words) "faithfuls," "elites" (although American English accepts this), "offsprings," "personnels," "furnitures," "legislations" (instead of "pieces of legislation), "a beehive of activities" (instead of "a beehive of activity"), etc.

Some spelling errors are also widespread in our newspapers and in the writings of even some educated people. Some them are: "alot" instead of "a lot," "infact," instead of "in fact," "inspite" instead of "in spite," "nonchallant," instead of "nonchalant," "pronounciation," instead of "pronunciation," strenght," instead of "strength," "emanciated" instead of "emaciated," etc.

A ragbag of American and British English
The trouble with labeling anything American English these days is that American English is now actually international English, which is unrelentingly diluting even British English at an alarming rate. I once read the story of a starry-eyed British linguist who came to America to study how American English deviates from British English. Between the period of his research and the time of the publication of his book, the expressions he identified as uniquely American, which he hoped would amuse and amaze British speakers, had become so commonplace that many British readers wondered what the point of his book was.

Today, British English has become so thoroughly Americanized that one has to be really careful when differentiating between the two varieties of English. Perhaps, we can rephrase George Bernard Shaw and say America and England have now become two countries that are increasingly being united by a common language. That is why it no longer makes any sense to learn British English these days since the British are themselves relentlessly Americanizing their English.

Having said that, it is still possible to isolate expressions that are peculiarly American and British. And there are instances when Nigerian English brings these two old varieties in a creative, if improper, linguistic conversation. Perhaps the best example I can think of is the word "torchlight," which we use to denote a small portable battery-powered electric lamp.

The British word for the same object is simply "torch" and the American name for it is "flashlight." So we took the British "torch" and combined it with the American "light" to produce a unique word that is both British and American—and neither British nor American! Of course, "torchlight" also exists as a separate word in both British and American English, but it only refers to the light produced by a flashlight—or a torch, if you will.

The word "short-knicker" belongs to this category, too. It is also derived from mixing American and British English. "Shorts" is the preferred American word for trousers that end at or above the knee. The British prefer "knickers," although as I said earlier, American English usage is now so widely spread in Britain that these distinctions are sometimes meaningless. But the important point to note is that we formed this word when it still made sense to talk of distinct American and British English.

I have also found out that our use of the phrase "international passport" to refer to "passport" is traceable to America. By "passport" I am referring to the document issued by a country to its citizens, which allows them to travel abroad and reenter their home countries; I am not referring to "passport photos," which we like to call "passports"— against the conventions of British and American English. In American bureaucratic circles, "international passport" is commonly used to denote non-American passports.

There is, for instance, the "International Passport Act" and an "International Passport Office Program" here in the United States. The act and the program address the passport issues of people from other countries who travel to the United States for various reasons. So "international passport" in America simply means foreign passports. Ordinary Americans do not prefix the adjective "international" when referring to their own passports. Perhaps the first Nigerians who traveled to the United States were confused by this nomenclature and passed down the confusion to us.

And the Nigerian English idiom "off head" seems to be traceable to the American "off the top of my head," which is now also common in Britain. Both expressions describe the sense of doing something with little or no preparation or forethought.

There are several expressions I was taught to avoid when I was in secondary school that I find widely used here. Some examples are: "tight friend" (instead of "close friend"), "point accusing fingers" (instead of "point fingers"), "senior/junior brother" (instead of "elder/younger brother"), "re-occur" (instead of "recur"), "oftentimes" (instead of "often"), etc. I first noticed these expressions in my students' essays and almost felt as if I was reading essays written by Nigerians. But it is my personal philosophy never to assume any expression to be wrong until I actually confirm this through inquiry. And, sure enough, what I thought were usage errors in my students' essays turned out to be respectable usage patterns in American English.

On many occasions, I can't help being amused by the conflict between what Bayo Oguntuase, the language activist who wrote for the defunct Sunday Concord, identified as usage errors unique to Nigeria and what I encounter here. For instance, he one wrote that the expression "(the) same to you" as a response to an expression of goodwill is wrong. He said the correct response should be "I wish you the same." Well, "same to you" is perfectly legitimate in American English.

Oguntuase also once wrote that the word "congrats" was a Nigerian invention. That, too, is wrong. The word is the American short form of "congratulations"; Nigerians merely adopted it. Even the British now use it widely. But the biggest surprise for me is the discovery that Americans also use the expression "I am coming" to indicate that they will be returning soon, although this usage is nonstandard even here. But I had been socialized into thinking that the expression is merely the literal translation of our Nigerian languages: na we in Batonu, ina zuwa in Hausa, mon bowa in Yoruba, etc.

I also discovered that the expression "to rub minds," which a language columnist once described as uniquely Nigerian, is actually an old-fashioned American expression. Americans now use the word "brainstorm," which sounds rather formal, even pretentious, in Nigerian English.

Concluding thoughts
In spite of what I have been writing in the past seven weeks, the truth is that Nigerian, American, and British English are, in reality, more alike than unlike. And my prognosis is that with the phenomenal explosion of the Internet all over the world, mutual intelligibility between these varieties of English will continue to increase. This contribution is intended to aid this process.

I have received emails from native speakers of the English language who do business in Nigeria. They said reading my column has given them better insights into patterns of Nigerian English usage that had remained a puzzle for them. Needless to say, many Nigerians, both at home and in the diaspora, have written to tell me that my column has exposed them to differences in English usage patterns that they had never consciously thought of before now. That's the whole point of this series.

But one of my most pleasant moments was when I received an email from someone who said he would have fallen prey to a potentially devastating 419 scam if he hadn't read my column. He received an email that purports to be from the U.S. State Department telling him that he had won the Green Card lottery. He said he had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the email for three reasons: first, he applied for the lottery last year and was expecting a positive outcome. Second, the email originated from a U.S. State Department email address, not a free Yahoo email address. Third, it was sent with a professional electronic letterhead of the US State Department.

But he said the first red flag was this phrase: "please send us your credentials immediately to enable us process your…" When he saw "to enable us," he said, he recalled reading in my column that in Standard American and British English, "enable" always co-occurs with the preposition "to." He confirmed his suspicion when he called the State Department.

My most unpleasant moment, however, was when one of my readers told me that he almost had a falling out with his best friend when he asked him to not keep "buzzing" him. The friend, not having read my column, mistook "buzzing" for "bugging," that is, to annoy persistently.

My attitude is that there is no reason to stop using the words "flashing" or "flasher"—and many such linguistic improvisations— when we speak to each other in Nigeria. We only need to be careful not to use the words "flasher" or "flashing" outside Nigeria because flashing, that is, the public display of nudity, is an offense for which people go to prison in America and Britain.

But it is not impossible that Nigerians can cause the original meaning of these words to be expanded to accommodate their unique usage in Nigeria. After all, the people Hong Kong contributed the expression "long time, no see" into the English language, an expression which not only subverts the traditional structure of the English language but was originally meaningless in English because it is a direct translation of Chinese into English.

It is time for us, too, to insist on our peculiar usage patterns until they are incorporated into mainstream international English. Hong Kong has done it. India has done it many times. Several other nations have done it. There is no reason why Nigeria can't do it.

Ghali Na'Abba: How Not to Moralize Political Prostitution

By Farooq A. Kperogi

In this season of vicious partisanship, I think it’s proper to begin this article with a disclaimer. I am not affiliated with any political party, nor do I have any allegiance to any politician in Nigeria. This opinion was actuated purely by my personal repugnance for Ghali Na’Abba’s politics.

I met Na’Abba for the first time at the midpoint of his tenure as Speaker of the House of Representatives. He had come to pay a visit to the corporate headquarters of Weekly Trust, then located in Kaduna. I, along with other editors, had an informal conversation with him on a wide range of issues. And what struck me about the man then was his spectacular—and disturbing—emptiness. He couldn’t articulate a coherent thought. His logic was tortured, his vocabulary severely limited, his reasoning embarrassingly off-center, even infantile, and he came across as one opportunist who didn’t deserve the public perception of him as a formidable political steamroller.

The first thing I said to my editor after the chat was: “This Na’Abba is actually an undeservedly overrated man.” I couldn’t reconcile his superficiality and rather facile disposition with the fact of his being a 1979 political science graduate of ABU. This man was at ABU during the period of the robust flowering of arguably the finest critical social science and humanistic scholarly traditions in Africa. He was probably taught by the late Bala Usman, Bjorn Beckman, Abdullah Smith, Patrick Wilmot, and a whole host of other profound, clear-headed fountainheads of critical knowledge that made ABU’s Faculty of Arts and Social Science easily the most intense breeding ground for critical thinkers and revolutionaries in Africa at the time. I wondered how Na’Abba could pass through such a place and still be such a disconcertingly simple-minded and frivolous airhead.

So when I read of Na’Abba’s return to the People’s Democratic Part (PDP) this week, I was not really shocked. The man doesn’t seem to have any core principles that he cherishes. Like most politicians in Nigeria, his politics is simply animated by naked rapacity and the love of power for the hell of it. What got me concerned, however, were the reasons he proffered for deserting the party that once gave him sanctuary in his moments of Obasanjo-induced political trauma.

According to the Daily Trust of last Friday, Na’Abba said his decision to return to the PDP was inspired, among other puerile reasons, by his sudden discovery of the deficiency of “moral rectitude” in the Action Congress (AC)! Now, I don’t care a tinker’s damn about the AC. As far as I am concerned, it is tarred with the same brush as the PDP. But what, in heaven’s name, is “moral rectitude” in a political party?

When has “moral rectitude”—whatever in the world Na’Aba understands by that— become a criterion to judge the soundness or lack thereof of a political party? You would think this man was talking about Jama’at Nasril Islam or the Christian Association of Nigeria—or some other religious organization. Well, it is all well and good to preachify about the lack of “moral rectitude” in a political party, but political parties all over the world are not known for their concern for morality. And the rest of us mere mortals don’t expect any morality from them either.

What we expect from them, especially in Nigeria, are programs designed to liberate the ordinary people from the morass of avoidable penury and squalor to which they have been unconscionably consigned since independence. What we expect from political parties is a commitment to transform our utterly prehistoric economy to a modern and globally competitive one. What we expect from them is a dedication to provide security of lives and property. We expect them to rejuvenate our embarrassingly decaying infrastructure. And so on. If they can provide these—or even be merely truly concerned about and committed to providing them when they get to power—they might as well take their damn morality and shove it down their begrimed pockets.

Well, let’s grant Na’Abba the latitude to agonize over and sermonize on the absence of morality in politics. So are we expected to take his return to the PDP as proof that the PDP has now become the ultimate sanctum sanctorum where saints abide in splendid isolation, untainted by the moral stains of society? And since he is so concerned about “moral rectitude,” do we also take it that he is himself now the very apotheosis of moral uprightness, Nigeria’s nonpareil personification of morality, unblemished by the faintest sprinkle of ethical dirt?

I think we should begin to critically engage this disreputable horde of flighty, shallow and scatterbrained simpletons who pose as politicians in Nigeria. Appeal to morality has become their favorite hiding place in the face of their scandalous ineptitude, improvidence and lack of principles. These scoundrels know only too well that the fatalistic disposition of the masses of our people makes them easily susceptible to religious manipulation. So at every turn, our unscrupulous politicians now invoke “God” and morality as convenient masks to conceal the nakedness of their appalling avarice and sloth.

To be fair to Na’Abba, he is only deploying a wellworn strategy that has been perfected by more experienced Nigerian politicians: deflect attention from the main issues by invoking religion and morality.

Given the well-known primitive acquisitive impulses of our politicians, we all know that the main issue Na’Aba is trying to disingenuously obscure is his naked ambition to be invited to “come and eat,” as the late Sunday Afolabi once crudely but accurately put it. But Na’Aba said he couldn’t be looking for an appointment from the present government because he was “the number four citizen in the country.”

This is another featherheaded japery that should be exposed for what it is. How does the fact of being a former “number four citizen in the country” sequestrate anybody from other people who are hankering for crumbs from this illegitimate government? How much salary did Na’Abba earn as Speaker of the House of Representatives that has insulated him from the financial vicissitudes that befall Nigerian politicians who are outside the orbit of the thievery of the reigning power structure? Hasn’t another ex-Speaker shamelessly sold his party to Yar’Adua in exchange for demeaning leftovers? Or is there something we do not know that accounts for Na’Abba’s financial omnipotence? Well, let’s see what happens in the next few weeks.

In any case, Na’Abba only contested for and won an election in just one local government in Kano State on the basis of which he came to the House of Representatives. He did not win, nor has he ever won, a national election. And before he became Speaker, he was a mere struggling employee of Bashir Tofa. So what’s all this swaggering bluster about being a former “number four citizen” about? For all we care, he could very well have been a mere local government chairman since he has never even won a statewide election.

Na’Abba betrayed the real reason for his political prostitution when he dissented to Abubakar Rimi’s insistence that Obasanjo must be removed as chairman of PDP’s board of trustees as a precondition for the return of alienated former members of the party. His strange logic was that it is unacceptable to set prior conditions in the process reconciliation.

But what is reconciliation if not the artful arbitration of differences, including preconditions? But even stranger than his juvenile logic is his apparent newfound love for Obasanjo, that terrifyingly repulsive monster that almost ran the country aground and who is the reason for the abiding and festering rancor in the PDP.

I am not surprised, though, that Na’Abba is now friends with Obasanjo. Paradoxically, Na’Abba owes his political relevance to Obasanjo. It was Obasanjo’s crude arm-twisting of the National Assembly and Na’Aba’s opportunistic resistance to it that lionized him and made him an unlikely hero. Were it not for this, Na’Abba would have suffered the same lustlesness that is worthy of people of his intellect and lack of principles. All the swashbuckling simulation of political machismo that Na’Aba now habitually exhibits is traceable to the misplaced public perception that he “stood up” to Obasanjo. But I hope people now know better.

If Na’Abba were smart, he would have quietly honored Yar’Adua’s invitation to “come and eat” without insulting our collective intelligence—and making a fool of himself in the process.

On Oprah Winfrey's Alleged Condemnation of Nigerian

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Nigerians— both at home and in the diaspora— have lately been the objects and subjects of renewed American news media attention consequent upon the ever-increasing fleecing of Americans by Nigerian 419 con artists. American investigative reporters in the major news media here now deploy the Nigerian 419 scams as avenues to demonstrate their investigative journalistic prowess.

The reigning trend in reporting the 419 scams here is for American investigative reporters to pretend to fall prey to 419 email propositions. Using a hidden camera, they then follow the lead until they trace the scammers back to Nigeria—often with the aid of officials of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC)— or to Europe or even to cities here in America. This is called “scam baiting” or “scamming the scammers.”

As you can imagine, this makes for good TV infotainment, and also reinforces (in some cases creates) the stereotype of Nigerians as ruthless scammers in the popular imagination of Americans.

But this phenomenon assumed an even greater significance when Oprah Winfrey, arguably America’s most powerful talk show host and world’s richest black person (although our own Aliko Dangote says he is richer than Oprah, but let’s wait and see what Charles Soludo’s “redenomination”/”redecimalization”/”revaluation” of the naira does to his “billions”!), discussed the topic of Nigerian 419 email scams on her immensely popular TV show sometime in April this year.

A certain Okoli Vitalis, apparently a Nigerian resident in America, was angered by the Oprah show and expressed his feelings in a widely circulated letter published in the Punch of July 26, 2007 titled “Oprah Winfrey Got it Wrong.” Among other claims, Vitalis alleged that Oprah importuned the American government to sever diplomatic and trade ties with Nigeria on account of the growing menace of Nigerian 419 email scams. He further claimed that Oprah said "all Nigerians—regardless of their level of education— are corrupt." Now, this does rankle— if she actually said all these. But did she? I will get to this shortly.

“Oprah's conclusion,” Vitalis added, “is based on the fact that a Nigerian of Igbo extraction was caught with $500,000, which was alleged to have been stolen from a foreigner through the Internet fraud popularly known as 419.” (The link to the letter can be found here).

When I read this letter, I was at once livid and worried—for three reasons. First, even though 419 email scams are omnipresent on the Internet and swindle countless innocent (but sometimes greedy) people out of their hard-earned money, Nigerians are not the worst perpetrators of Internet fraud in the word. That dubious honor, interestingly, belongs to Americans, according to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center, the two U.S. agencies that monitor Internet crime.

The statistics on the Web site of the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which is a partnership between the National White Collar Crime Center and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, show that the United States leads the world in Internet crime. Between 87 percent and 76 percent of all Internet fraud reported in the world between 2001 and 2006 was committed by Americans. (The 2006 annual report of online fraud can be found here.)

The figures also show that 419 email scams constitute less than one percent of all online fraud and that the prevalence of these email scams decreased from 15.5 percent in 2001 to less than one percent in 2006. So I wondered why all Nigerians should be vilified for the crimes of a few dishonest people among us.

Second, Nigeria’s 140 million people are composed of over 300 distinct ethnic groups, and it doesn’t seem fair to tar all Nigerians with the same brush on account of the misdeeds of “a Nigerian of Igbo extraction [who] was caught with $500,000,” to quote Vitalis directly.

Third, and most important, Oprah is not just another American talk show host; she is arguably America’s most important talk show host. When she talks, America listens—and acts. For instance, sometime ago, a cattle-rancher-turned-vegetarian appeared on Oprah’s show where he told her grim stories of the effects of the “mad cow disease.” And her response was: “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!”

The next day, cattle prices dropped by 10 percent. And Texas cattle producers sued her for libel. They alleged that her statement was responsible for the dramatic drop in the demand for cattle. Of course, she won the case, but I cite this anecdote to show how powerful Oprah is—or is believed to be. People ascribe to her words the power of a social syringe that can inject instant attitudinal changes to a large section of the American populace with immediate and dramatic effects.

When she recommends books, they become instant bestsellers. And I tell you, if she says all Nigerians are criminals and should be avoided, it is not unlikely that a majority of Americans will believe her and act accordingly. The reverse is also probably true, although I must admit that I am being a bit of a vulgar empiricist here. But this woman’s influence on the American public is simply phenomenal. If not, why would Texas cattle producers attribute the drop in the demand for cattle to her apparently innocuous, off-the-cuff remark?

Of course, many communication scholars have argued that the impact of the mass media cannot be read straight off from the content of output; people read, hear, see and understand media messages selectively based on predetermined values and therefore have the capacity to, and indeed do, resist media persuasion.

But it is also true that there are limits to interpretation; meaning cannot be simply “private” and “individual.” For one thing, frames of reference, which audiences bring to their consumption of media messages, come from somewhere, are formed at some time, and are liable to be re-formed over time through symbolic interactionism. Besides, long-time exposure to the media play a crucial role in determining the predispositions by which people make sense of both the world and, in turn, of the particular interpretations of the world offered by the mass media. But I digress.

So in my exasperation and my desire to find the truth, I combed Oprah’s Web site to get the transcript of the show where she allegedly said, among other objectionable things, that all Nigerians, regardless of social status, are corrupt. (I don’t watch her show often because I am way too busy for that diversion). It turned out, however, that she never said any such things! Vitalis made them up and gratuitously caused Nigerians, especially in the diaspora, to be riled to no end.

This claim is traceable to Oprah’s show titled "Conmen and How to Avoid Them," which featured people who have fallen victim to different kinds of scams, including (no, I should say especially) the Nigerian 419 email scam. At the end of the show Oprah said, "I know we're going to get a letter from somebody saying that Nigeria has a lot of wonderful people. You don't have to send the letter. We already know that. We're just talking about this particular scam that's going on. We're not talking about the entire country and everybody in the country." (The entire transcript of the show can be found here).

This seems to me like a fair-minded comment. It is not clear why Vitalis attributed to Oprah what she never said. Perhaps, he was simply incensed that Oprah brought the issue of 419 scams to the forefront of popular consciousness in America.

Someone once remarked that those of us who live outside Nigeria are often excessively obsessed with Nigeria’s image abroad, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Perhaps this is true.

I attribute this to what I call the narcissism of transnational citizenship: transnational citizens simultaneously savor the comfort of the foreign country in which they live and are also, mostly for egocentric reasons, so emotionally invested in the external image of their home countries that they habitually lapse into exaggerated fits of nationalistic fervor at the slightest negative publicity of their ancestral countries in the foreign mass media.

Maybe we are all sometimes guilty of this self-absorption. But outright mendacity in the name of patriotism should be condemned.

Lies Nigerians Tell Abroad in the Name of Sharia

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This week, I wanted to write on Charles Soludo’s now suspended “Strategic Agenda for the Naira” from a transnational perspective. I also wanted to comment on the personality and politics of the man himself, based on a few episodic encounters I had with him when he was Obasanjo’s Special Adviser on Economic Matters and when I worked as a researcher at the Presidential Research and Communications Unit.

But more than that, my informal research on the academic and scholarly profile of this vain, attention-seeking narcissist has left me more than a little puzzled. Is the man nearly as intelligent and academically accomplished as he has been cracked up to be in the Nigerian media? Does he REALLY deserve to be a professor? What is he professing—and where is he professing it? And shouldn’t we closely scrutinize the academic credentials of a man who says he got his master’s degree and Ph.D. in just four years (in Nigeria!) and became a “professor” a few years after that, with very few, if any, peer-reviewed academic journal articles to his credit?

Should tawdry, poorly articulated, conceptually flawed, non-peer-reviewed and thematically repetitive pamphlets and monographs published by international NGOs and the IMF/World Bank (and not scholarly publishing houses) be the basis for judging anybody’s scholarly productivity—and for promoting him to the rank of professor?

But just while I was coalescing my thoughts on this mysterious man whose false charm has held everybody—or almost everybody— prisoner in Nigeria (it has become a hackneyed refrain in the media, for instance, to precede every comment on, or even criticisms against, the man by noting that he is a “first-class brain”), I stumbled on a story that might well encapsulate a growing trend: the exploitation of “Sharia” by Nigerians to seek asylum in Europe.

First, it came to light that the Nigerian-born first black mayor of an Irish county, Rotimi Adebari, had lied to Irish immigration officers seven years ago about the reason he sought asylum in Ireland. He said he sought refuge in Ireland to escape religious persecution in his home state of Ogun in 2000. He was reported to have said that Muslims were killing Christians in his state, and that he and his family of four decided to seek sanctuary in Ireland because their lives were in danger.

This was, of course, a barefaced lie that merely sought to exploit the insularity of most Westerners where matters of the people of developing countries, especially Africans, are concerned. We all know that there was a religious upheaval only in Kaduna in 2000. Ogun State, in fact, has no history of Muslim/Christian clashes. Well, the man is now a mayor in Ireland.

This week, it came to light again that another Nigerian economic refugee identified as Felix Eugenne, is telling an even more brazen lie to immigration officers in Italy. He said he had impregnated a Muslim girl by the name of Fatimah in Niger State and that, in accordance with Sharia law, he was billed to be stoned to death when he mysteriously bolted from the prison! And some Italians believe him.

If only these people cared to know just a little bit of Islamic jurisprudence, they would have realized that the punishment for fornication in Islam is NOT death by stoning; it’s symbolic public canning. And non-Muslims are not subject to it.

But that’s not even the most shocking lie. When did this incident allegedly happen? Wait for it—1994! Yes, it isn’t a typo. It’s 1994—when General Sani Abacha held sway as head of state and when Sharia had not been introduced in any part of Nigeria!

I have decided to reproduce the entire news item below unedited. One can only imagine how many more Nigerians are lying in the name of Sharia to get refugee status in European countries. Their cases appear to have been helped by the high-profile international media coverage that the Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal trials attracted. Anybody who says he has been condemned to death by stoning by a Nigerian Sharia court is now believed—or so it seems.

I think this is another sophisticated mutation of 419 scams. I wager that the next issue Nigerians seeking asylum in European countries will exploit is homosexuality. They will claim to be homosexuals who are being persecuted and threatened with death because of their “sexual orientation.” That will appeal to the sentiments of Westerners to no end. Homosexuality is now a “human rights” issue in the West, and the “plight” of African homosexuals is top on the agenda of the powerful Western gay lobby. Well, enjoy the story below. I leave you to make your judgments. See you next week.

Italy: Nigerian Christian facing stoning prays he can stay

Turin, 24 August (AKI) - A young Nigerian Christian man, Felix Eugenne is anxiously awaiting a decision on 3 September from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on whether he can remain in Italy. He is facing deportation to Nigeria and death by stoning for having sex outside wedlock with a Muslim woman.

Magistrates in Nigeria sentenced Eugenne, 27, to death by stoning preceeded[sic] by public flogging. His crime was to have had sex with his girlfriend Fatimah, who is a Muslim: a double offence in Niger state, where Islamic law is in force.

Nigeria's constitution upholds the secularism of the state and its legal system. But in Niger state and 11 other states, mainly in the Muslim majority north, Islamic law is applied.

Eugenne's family property was torched by his girfriend's[sic] relatives when they found out Fatimah was pregnant, and Eugenne and his father were thrown into jail.

Eugenne was imprisoned and given 21 public lashes for several days. He had been sentenced to 21 public lashes for 21 days before death by stoning, but says he managed to escape when his mullah-jailer left his cell unlocked one day.

The mullah had his throat slit in a public square as an "exemplary" punishment, Eugenne said. He managed to flee Nigeria and reach Italy aboard a container ship in April 1994.

Via diplomatic channels, documents and photographs, Eugenne's main lawyer, Anna Rosa Oddone, has verified his story. A spokesman for her law firm told Adnkronos International (AKI) they were optimistic that Eugenne would be allowed to stay in Italy.

The UNHCR in Italy, which has representatives from the UN, the Italian government and the police, will rule on whether he can obtain refugee status, political asylum, or humanitarian leave, meaning he could stay in the country initially for up to 12 months.

If his recourse to UNHCR fails, Eugenne can apply to the Italian courts but will have to do so in absentia, as he will be deported immediately.

The region of Piedmonte's regional administrative court previously threw out Eugenne's case, ruling that it was beyond its jurisdiction.

Eugenne has been working as a casual labourer unloading goods at a supermarket in the Italian city of Turin, and working as a hairdresser in his free time.

He has no idea what has become of Fatimah, his child or his parents and his other relations. He fears that any attempt to contact them could be fatal for him.

Italy has helped save two Nigerian women sentenced to lapidation under Islamic Sharia law. Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning for having a baby as a result of consensual sexual relations while divorced, had her sentence overturned and was freed in 2003.

Safiya Husseini who was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in 2001 but was later acquitted on appeal and in 2002 was made an 'honorary' citizen of Rome.

The story is found here.

LinkedIn

There was an error in this gadget

NewsShow

There was an error in this gadget