"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 01/20/10

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Nigerian English, in general, is characterized by a rather overinflated affection for excessively recondite vocabularies. Perhaps, this fact is true of all, or at least most, English-As-a-Second-Language (ESL) varieties. Stiffness and extravagant formality even in conversational contexts are some of the idiosyncratic linguistic trappings of many ESL speakers.

However, Nigerian speakers of the English language deserve a prize—or, if you’re so inclined, an official rebuke from the custodians of the language—for their uncannily extensive repertoire of weird and obsolescent words that no one else uses in standard varieties of the language.

I am not talking about big, highfalutin, and intellectually fashionable words (what Americans quaintly call “vocabulary words,” or what Nigerians curiously call “grammar”) that snooty intellectuals use to show off their esoteric erudition and to linguistically map a social distance between them and lesser educated people. I am talking about some really weird words that are so out of step with contemporary English usage that they can’t be found in everyday dictionaries.

1. “imprest.” Almost every Nigerian with at least a high school diploma knows this word to mean periodic petty cash, in form of a loan, for government officials to spend on incidentals, which is continually replenished in exactly the amount expended from it. This Nigerian usage shows fidelity to the etymology of the word. Its original Latin form, “impresto,” means a loan.

But there is no American I have met who knows what this word means. Not even a conservative semantic purist friend of mine who has edited many respectable U.S. newspapers and another fastidious linguistic activist friend who is CNN’s chief copy editor had the vaguest clue what the word means. Heck, even Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize it as an English word, and a majority of notable print dictionaries don’t have an entry for it.

It’s obvious that the word came to our linguistic repertory through our colonial encounter with Britain, where the word had been popular since at least 1321, according to linguistic historians. But even in Britain the word has fallen into disuse in conversational English. In the course of my research, I discovered that its use in the UK is now confined to professional accounting circles. So, apart from Nigerians, only professional British accountants are familiar with the word.

2. “Estacode.” Most Nigerians know this word to mean daily overseas travel allowance, somewhat equivalent to what Americans call “per diem allowance.” (Estacode is a rich source for rifling the national treasury by Nigeria’s rapacious and thieving government officials).

The word is entirely meaningless for Americans and for the younger generation of British speakers. Like “imprest,” it’s also not found in many modern print dictionaries, and is recognized as a foreign word by every edition of Microsoft Word.

The etymology of the word shows that it first emerged in 1944 when the British government established something called the “Civil Service Management Code.” This Code systematizes all matters relating to the conduct, discipline, conflicts of interest, and political activities of the British Civil Service. So “estacode” probably began as a portmanteau of “Establishment” and “Code.” (A portmanteau is a new word formed by joining two others and combining their meanings, such as “motel,” which is formed from motor and hotel, or “brunch,” which is formed from breakfast and lunch).

But it appears that the use of “estacode” to mean daily overseas traveling allowance for politicians, athletes, etc is peculiarly Nigerian. If that sense of the word was originally British, it no longer is. The latest example I found of the use of “estacode” in British English is in a Feb. 4 1993 news story by David McKie in the UK Guardian titled “The fall of the houses of Poulson.” The story goes thus: “What there wasn’t was any attention to the Estacode which governs the lives of senior civil servants and says you must never accept gifts from those with whom you have official connections.”

This is the sense in which the word is also used in Pakistan and India, which, like Nigeria, are former British colonies. Additionally, in all these countries, the first “e” in “estacode” is always capitalized, unlike in Nigeria where it is not.

3. “Parastatal.” This is another weird word that we use copiously in Nigeria. It means a wholly or partly owned government company or corporation. This is decidedly a British English word that seems to have fallen into disuse in contemporary Britain but that is still actively used in almost all former British colonies—Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, etc.

It is almost non-existent in American English perhaps because the private sector has historically been the engine room of America’s economy. But with the recent government bail-out of private companies and the formation of government-mandated committees to oversee these hitherto wholly privately owned companies—such as the AIG insurance firm and the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loan companies—Americans may need this word.

4. “Demurrage.” This weird word has been popularized in everyday Nigerian English through Nigerian 419 email scams. It means a charge required as compensation for the delay of a ship or freight car or other cargo beyond its scheduled time of departure. The problem with this word isn’t that it’s not in modern dictionaries. It is. It’s just that it’s too technical and too formal for conversational English. Most highly educated Americans and Britons who have no business with shipping don’t know what the heck the word means. But an average educated Nigerian does.

5.Groundnut.” This word, though found in dictionaries, is Greek to most modern native English speakers. It’s obviously an archaic word; American and British speakers now call it “peanut.”

6. Vulcanizer. This is an obsolete British English word that is still enjoys currecny in Nigerian English. It means a person who repairs tyres [spelled “tires” in American English]. Almost no British person under the age of 30 has any clue what this word means. Americans never had its lexical equivalent because, as one of my American friends observed, “we don't do a lot of repairing [of tires]; we just replace [them]). But there is no reason to stop using this word because it actually serves a semantic need in Nigeria. Britons have abandoned the word not because they have an alternative for it but because they no longer have individuals who earn a living by repairing punctured tyres. Machines do that now, so “vulcaniser” now refers to a machine that treats rubbers with sulphur.

7.  “Trafficator.” This word lost currency in British English since the 1960s. The British now call it an “indicator.” Americans call it either a “turn signal” or a “turn indicator.”

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