"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 04/08/10

Thursday, April 8, 2010

On “Metaphors” and “Puns” in Nigerian Media English

By Farooq A. Kperogi

No day goes by without reading in our newspapers how some unflattering event in one part of the country is a “metaphor” for what is wrong with Nigeria. And extended news reports, feature articles, and opinion pieces are often full of intended and  unintended “puns.”

Of the scores of tropes used for literary and rhetorical expression in English, metaphors and puns—along with irony and satire—are certainly the most integrated into journalese (that is, the distinctive stylistic peculiarities of newspaper writing). But as with all expressions that have been appropriated by journalese, especially Nigerian journalese, they are now objects of the most brutal forms of semantic violence.

Let’s start with “metaphor.” In Nigerian journalese, this word is often used as a synonym for “exemplar,” or “illustration,” and occasionally “analogy.” But a metaphor is none of these.

Of course, there are definitional squabbles among literary scholars over what a metaphor means, but most literary scholars agree that a metaphor is “a comparison that shows how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in another important way.” In other words, for a metaphor to be present, the things being compared must belong to different, unrelated classes.

So, before we can say an expression or an event is a metaphor for anything, it has to evoke a comparison of two things that belong to different classes. For instance, when we say Good Jonathan's kitchen cabinet (that’s a legitimate—albeit dead—metaphor, by the way) is peopled by pig-headed scoundrels, we are comparing the qualities of stupid obstinacy characteristic of an animal (i.e. a pig) with those of human beings (Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Labaran Maku, etc).

But if we call Jonathan’s kitchen cabinet members little Hitlers, or if we describe them as being “Hitlerite,” that won’t be a metaphor because they and Hitler are in the same class, i.e., they are all humans.

By contrast, when Nigerians say, for instance, that certain political utterances are capable of “overheating the polity” (an annoyingly sterile cliche in Nigeria) they are invoking a thermal imagery (i.e., heating) to dramatize socio-political realities. Heating and human conflict belong to different classes. So “overheating the polity” will qualify as a thermal metaphor.

Now, I have lost count of how many senior journalists have characterized the crisis in Jos as a “metaphor” for what ails Nigeria. But that’s more properly called an illustration or an exemplar. Jos and Nigeria are geo-political entities; they both belong to the same class. None has the capacity to conjure up vivid mental images of the other.

It would be appropriate, however, to describe a pipeline explosion, or an instance of infrastructural decay, etc as a metaphor for Nigeria—or any country. The point of a metaphor, as it should be obvious by now, is to provoke the mind to make conceptual and cognitive associations between abstract, unfamiliar events or things (called the tenor) and concrete, familiar ones (called the vehicle). There must be some transference, some mental “carrying over” for a metaphor to be deemed to be present in an expression or an event.

I recall that sometime ago when I wrote that “jargon” is often misused in Nigerian English to stand for “nonsense” when the word actually means specialized vocabulary used in a non-specialist context, someone wrote to tell me that the Nigerian English use of “jargon” may actually be “metaphorical.” Wrong. “Jargon” and “nonsense” belong to the same class: they are both lexical items denoting abstract concepts and one can’t therefore be a metaphorical extension of the other.

Then you have “pun intended” or “no pun intended,” which our journalists— and people who are influenced by their writing— understand to mean any meaningless and arbitrary collocation of phrases.

I have read many articles by Nigerians with the phrases “no pun intended” and “pun intended” and couldn’t help wondering if the writers actually know what a pun means.

A pun, also called a paronomasia, is an artful play on similar-sounding words for humorous effect. As Walter Redfern famously said, “To pun is to treat homonyms [i.e. words pronounced or spelled the same way but with different meanings] as synonyms [i.e., words that have the same meaning]."

My favorite puns are puns on pun. There is, for instance, this popular pun that exploits the phonetic similarity between “funny” and “punny.” It goes: “There is nothing punny about bad puns.” And there is one that plays on the phrase “no pun intended.” It goes: “A man sent a list of ten puns to a friend, hoping at least one would make him laugh. No PUN IN TEN DID.”

Now, look at these sentences that I randomly pulled from Nigerian writers: “It is unnecessary for them to entertain the on-lookers with their boobs (no pun intended).” “In the past, a man’s peccadilloes (pun intended) may not be revealed to his wife until the moment his earthly vessel was to be interred….” “If he cannot avoid contradictions in an article of eleven paragraphs and three pages how can he convince anyone that he has the cerebral capacity to understand, God, Religion etc.(no pun intended please).” “…to think any Nigerian could be nostalgic of the ‘abacha years’ when our collective psyche was brutalised by a mean and near demented dictator (no pun intended).” Huh? Seriously?

What’s punny about these intended and not intended "puns"? You have to wonder what these writers understand by pun.

Well, if this is any comfort, Americans too have a parallel error in their spoken and written English. They wrongly use “literally” as an intensifier, and this often produces unintended comical effects. Literally, of course, means “without embellishment or interpretation or exaggeration.” It’s the opposite of figuratively or metaphorically. If I said someone has “literally overheated the room,” I would mean that he’d actually burned some fire in the room or adjusted the thermostatic control in the room to an unbearable high.

Many of my American friends have had occasion to tell me that they were “literally starving to death.” But they are still alive as I write this. Yet they were “literally starving to death”! It’s also usual to hear Americans say something like, “The mayor is literally robbing us blind with this new tax.” No, the mayor can’t be literally (i.e., actually) robbing them since he didn’t appear at their houses to physically dispossess them of their belongings. He is correctly robbing them figuratively.

So while Nigerians understand metaphors literally, Americans understand “literally” figuratively. An interesting semantic reversal, isn't it?

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