"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Q and A on Nigerian English Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I received many interesting questions from my readers these past few weeks, which inspired me to make this week’s column a Q and A. I encourage readers to send in their queries to my email address. As a rule, remember, I don’t disclose the identities of questioners. Enjoy:

Question: Is it “delivered a baby” or “delivered of a baby”?

My wife wrote to her place of work, after giving birth, that she was delivered of a baby in the hospital. “I was delivered of a baby boy last Thursday,” she wrote. The guy who saw the letter cancelled the statement and ranted that it was a mistake. He insisted that it should only read, "I delivered a baby last Thursday".

Actually, I feel the guy was wrong to say his statement is the ONLY correct one, and I also thought my wife was right in how she made the statement. Please help me resolve this and reply via email. Thanks so much.

Answer:

Your question reminds me of a Nigerian language columnist’s take on this issue years back. He wrote that it is wrong to say “my wife delivered a baby yesterday.” Instead, he said, it should be “my wife was delivered of a baby yesterday.” So this grammar columnist is the very antithesis of your wife’s unsolicited, self-appointed grammar police. But what is the correct expression?

Well, “be delivered of a baby” is a fixed idiom in British English. It means “to give birth to a baby.” This definition is taken straight from the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. And this is the usage example the dictionary gives: “She was delivered of a healthy boy.” That means the expression “I was delivered of a baby last Thursday” that your wife used in her letter is legitimate.

However, “deliver” as a word can also mean “cause to be born,” and the phrase “deliver a baby” also means “to help a woman give birth to a baby.” So it is also perfectly acceptable to write, “I delivered a baby last Thursday.”

Now, according to usage experts in British English, the phrase “be delivered of a baby” is the preferred expression to use in formal contexts, while “deliver a baby” is especially suitable in informal, colloquial contexts. So both expressions are correct. I would add that since your wife was writing a formal letter to her workplace, her choice of expression is particularly appropriate.

Having said that, I’ve realized that almost no American says they have been “delivered of a baby girl.” I have American friends who have had babies or whose wives have had babies, but I’ve never heard any of them use the British English idiom “delivered of a baby.” They just say they or their wives “delivered a baby.” So the decision to use “delivered of” or “deliver” may also be dialectal. But we speak and write British (or what I like to call neo-British) English in Nigeria. In that wise, you’re right that your wife was right.

Question: Is there a word like “unserious”?

Recently, I used the word “unserious” in a discussion on an online forum, and somebody, whom I respect, corrected me. He said there is no such word as “unserious” in English; that it's either I say “not serious” or use another word. Please clarify this for me.

Answer:

Well, your friend is both right and wrong. He is right because “unserious” is traditionally not a frequently used word in British English, which we speak—or pretend to speak—in Nigeria. That's why it can’t be found in prestigious British English dictionaries. But he is wrong because the word has been an integral part of the lexicon of American English for a long time.

“Unserious” has an entry in such prestigious American dictionaries as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It is also listed in Wikitionary, the collaborative online dictionary. But Dictionary.com has no entry for it.

 But, more importantly, the word is used by well-regarded columnists in prestigious newspapers like the New York Times. Take, for instance, Professor Paul Krugman’s September 29 op-ed column titled “Unserious Central Bankers.” Krugman, in case you didn’t know, is a Nobel laureate and professor of economics at Princeton University. Famous and well-regarded conservative American philosopher George Will also famously called Obama “seriously unserious” in a Newsweek article last year.

 Interestingly, as with most English expressions and words that were once exclusively American, “unserious” is spreading to British English. I found three records of its use in the British National Corpus, the most definitive record of contemporary spoken and written British English.

Question: Which is the correct expression between these two: “to be rest assured” or “to rest assured”?

I see that many educated Nigerians use the expression “to be rest assured.” But someone said it’s wrong. What can you tell me about this?

Answer:

The idiom is “to rest assured.” This is how it is rendered in both British and American English and, I imagine, in other native varieties of the English language such as Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand English.  However, over the years, Nigerians have distorted the idiom to “to be rest assured.” It is typical to hear some Nigerians say, “You should be rest assured that I will deliver on my promises.” But it should correctly be, “you should rest assured that I will deliver on my promises.”

The 2002 edition of the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs defines “rest assured” as “to be assured; to be certain.” And it gives the following examples of the idiom’s usage: “Rest assured that you'll receive the best of care. Please rest assured that we will do everything possible to help.”

Similarly, the 2006 edition Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms defines “rest assured” as “to be certain something will happen” and gives the following usage example: “I know this fellow well, and you can rest assured he will give you good advice.” In case you think this an exclusively American English idiom, it is not; it is also found in British English.

It’s unclear how the intrusive “be” entered into the Nigerian rendering of the idiom. Since we don’t say “go and BE rest” in Nigerian English, it seems indefensible that we say “you should BE rest assured.”

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