"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: October 2012

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Continued from last week


7. “Dog-whistle (politics).” Although the expression “dog whistle” traces its origins to Australian English, it was exported to the rest of the world from America. It means the crafty, loaded use of words and imagery in ways that seem harmless and innocent to the general public but that actually sends a special, often racist, message to a select group of people. For instance, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said in a leaked video that "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. [They] are dependent upon government … believe that they are victims, … believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, … believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it -- that that's an entitlement.”

Many commentators said he was sending a “dog-whistle message” to people who consider themselves successful, hardworking white people, and was basically saying: look, we are up against black people, the poor, women, veterans, and other marginal groups. 

Similarly, just last week, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who is a Republican, made a racially coded “dog-whistle” remark against Obama when she criticized his handling of the murder of the late US ambassador to Libya in the following words: “President Obama's shuck and jive shtick with these Benghazi lies must end.”  

The Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary, defines “shuck and jive” as “the intentionally misleading words and actions that African-Americans would employ in order to deceive racist Euro-Americans in power, both during the period of slavery and afterwards." In southern United States, “shucking and jiving” has come to denote any kind of misleading and insincere talk that is intended to deceive. 

From interaction with my students, I get the sense that the expression was going out of currency until Palin rehabilitated it. My students said they did not know what it meant until Sarah Palin brought it (back) to the forefront of America’s political lexicon. It is clearly used mostly by older people. It nevertheless signposts dog-whistle politics because, although the general (adult) US population understands it to mean facetiously mendacious talk designed to deceive, it evokes memories of black slaves who told funny lies to avoid punishment from their slave masters. Now connect the dots….

It isn’t only Republicans who use dog-whistle politics, though. Obama sometimes deploys it, too. In 2007, for instance, when Obama addressed a black crowd in South Carolina to refute rumors that he was a secret Muslim, he used coded language that deeply resonated with black Americans but that didn’t raise any red flags among most white Americans. “They try to bamboozle you, hoodwink you,” Obama told the crowd.

“Bamboozle” and “hoodwink” were popularized in black America by Malcolm X. He used the words to describe the tactics the white establishment and its media used to destroy the credibility of revolutionary black leaders.  

As William Jelani Cobb, a professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, said, “All of us knew that he was referencing Malcolm X, and when he said it, the reaction was instantaneous.”  

8. “Liar, liar pants on fire!” This expression is a mocking song that American kids sing in the playground when a playmate is caught in a lie. Some people say the expression is derived from a paraphrase of William Blake’s 1810 poem titled “The Liar.” Other people dispute the accuracy of this claim. Whatever it is, the expression has made its way into America’s political discourse. When a politician is caught in a lie, it is customary for opponents—and the news media— to cry: “Liar, liar pants on fire!” To give just one example, respected Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote a May 30 2012 column titled, “Romney: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.” 

Note that Americans use “pants” where British (and Nigerian) English speakers would use “trousers.”

9. “Win brownie points”/ “win browning points.” In American English, the term “brownie points” is used to denote praise or favor for a good job. Example: “I won brownie points from my wife for taking care of the kids while she was away.” That expression was creatively contorted recently when Republican candidate Mitt Romney dyed his face brown to appeal to Latino voters (that is, Americans who trace their descent to brown-looking, Spanish-speaking people of South and Central America) during an appearance at Univision’s Presidential Forum. (Univision is the preeminent TV channel of Latino Americans). 

A news site remarked that Romney was straining hard to “win browning points.”  Note that the original expression is “win brownie points,” which got contorted to “win browning points” because Romney allegedly painted his face “brown” to ingratiate himself with Latino voters. The origin of “win brownie points” is shrouded in mystery, but I do know that Americans call chocolate cakes “brownies.”

10. “Pinocchio.” Pinocchio (pronounced pinokio) is a compulsively lying fictional character in an American children’s novel. It has a short nose, but each time it tells lies its nose grows exaggeratedly long. “Pinocchio” is now used metaphorically in American English to refer to anyone who is fond of lies, distortions, and exaggerations. Fact-checkers who verify or refute the claims of politicians—a growing journalistic enterprise in the United States—have especially popularized the use of the term in American conversational English.

“Romney’s Pinocchio act,” “Barack ‘Pinocchio’ Obama,” etc. are common expressions used to show that either of the presidential candidates is lying. Journalists also hand out “Pinocchio awards” to lying politicians. For instance, the Washington Post, after fact-checking a Romney campaign ad, which it calls the “the Pinocchio test,” concluded that “the Romney campaign earns two Pinocchio for its ‘Dear Daughter’ ad.” It also evaluated one of Obama’s anti-Romney TV ads and gave it four Pinocchios for misrepresentation. 

Many American news organizations have a “Pinocchio tracker” that evaluates the truth claims of politicians. The news media typically draw politicians with an unnaturally long nose to indicate that they are lying.


11. “Moochers.” A moocher is a freeloader, that is, someone who tries to get something for free, who is allergic to hard work. To mooch is to ask for free stuff, to be a parasite, to be a lazy unproductive beggar. In British English, however, to mooch is to hang around, as in: “We mooched at the pepper soup joint after office hours.” An American would understand that sentence to mean that you begged for pepper soup from patrons at the joint. “Mooch” and “moochers” were thrown around a lot in American popular discourse after Mitt Romney suggested that 47 percent of Americans who depend on “government handouts” and who pay no taxes would never vote for him. Americans erupted in anger and said Romney was calling them “moochers” and “freeloaders,” that is, lazy parasites who depend on government to survive.

12. “Malarkey.” This is an American slang term for “nonsense.” Vice President Joe Biden gave it prominence during the vice presidential debate when he described his opponent’s characterization of Obama’s foreign policy as “a bunch of malarkey." Shortly after he uttered the word, it was mentioned more than 30,000 times in the space of just one minute on Twitter. It has now gone from being an obscure Americanism to a recognizable term in International English.

To be concluded next week

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Time to Change Nigeria’s National Flag

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Nigeria undoubtedly has one of the world’s worst designed flags. It is unimaginative, aesthetically unpleasant, and sterile in imagery and symbolism. It is one of only few national flags I know that repeat one bland color twice and that does not faithfully depict the culture, peculiarities, and history of the people it purports to typify. 


This may seem like a trivial subject-matter--and maybe it is-- but recent events in Nigeria should cause us all to question our representational images and the relation of those images to our experiential realities. As children in primary school, we were taught that the green in our flag represents agriculture and that the white represents peace. Contemporary Nigeria, as we all know, is anything but an agricultural and peaceful country.

But before I dissect the representational inexactitude of our flag, let me examine its creativity deficit. I have never been able to wrap my head around the justification for the repetition of the color green in our national colors. You would think the color green was in danger of going out of circulation and needed to be captured and curated on a flag—or that the scores of color types that could be worthy symbols of our everyday realities suddenly developed wings and took a flight from the earth.

Are colors the only symbolic representations we can invoke to depict our culture, peculiarities, and history? What about the awe-inspiring, time-honored rivers that course through the length and breadth of our country’s landscape; the rich, labyrinthine tapestry of our history; our uniquely sumptuous culinary treats; our valiant pre-colonial empires and their extravagantly elegant royalty; our creative orthographic inventions such as Ajami in northern Nigeria and Nsibidi in southeastern Nigeria? 

What about our rich ethnic and linguistic diversity? What about the creative genius of our art and craft and the fascinating meteorological diversities of our regions? And so on and so forth. Why is none of these captured representationally on our national flag?

It takes little or no imagination to design a flag with two mind-numbingly commonsensical colors. In fact, it takes a spectacular lack of imagination to design the kind of uninspired and uninspiring flag that Nigeria hoists. It fills me with enormous shame that we call that irredeemably nondescript esthetic embarrassment our national flag. Yet, a certain 73-year-old man by the name of Michael Taiwo Akinkumi, who claims to have “designed” our national flag, perennially bewails that he has not been sufficiently rewarded by the Nigerian government for his “genius.”

During every Independence Day celebration, our newspapers never fail to tell us how Mr. Akinkunmi, an Owu man from Abeokuta who lives in Ibadan, is mired in grubby poverty in spite of having the “distinction” of “designing” Nigeria’s flag. If I wasn’t brought up to respect old age, I would have suggested that we start a national ritual of flogging the man every October 1st until we come up with a more creative and befitting national flag!

To be fair to the man, though, his original entry, according to the Wikipedia entry on the Flag of Nigeria, “had a red sun with streaming rays placed at the top of the white stripe.” But the judges, who chose his design as the best out of thousands of entries, removed the red sun. Any wonder we’ve been enveloped by metaphorical and literal darkness since independence? I imagine that the judges were British colonialists, since this competition took place in 1959 when Nigeria was still under the yoke of British colonialism. What could be the judges’ motivation for foisting a bland, colorless (never mind that it has two colors!), and uninspiring flag on us? Your guess is as good as mine.

But we have been “independent” from British colonial rule for 52 years now. Isn’t it about time we rethought the colors and design of our national flag? For one, it is a holdover from colonialism; it wasn’t a product of a post-independence effort. Since we changed our colonially inherited national anthem (which, sadly, is worse than its predecessor in content, cadence, and creativity) we can also change our national flag. It isn’t a sacred symbol, after all. In any case, it’s customary for countries to redesign their national flags—if they have a reason to. Britain’s national flag, for instance, has been changed many times since 1603 when it was first designed.

And we have many good reasons to change ours. Nigeria is no longer the agricultural country it was when the flag was conceived and designed. The groundnut pyramids of the pre-independence and post-independence eras in northern Nigeria have evaporated into thin air. The cocoa farms in southwest Nigeria have been lost irretrievably. All over Nigeria, we have condemned ourselves to subsistence farming.

So agriculture—or whatever the green in our national flag represents—isn’t a faithful representation of who we are now. It’s doubly shameful that we have repeated that representation twice in our flag. If anything needs representing on our flag, it is a color that signifies our dependence on oil. Of course, that, too, would be shortsighted since oil is a fleeting natural endowment.

And peace? Oh, please! Given the mindless, ever-present, fratricidal bloodshed that has been our lot since independence—and that seems to be deepening with every passing day—we should spare the world the horror of calling ourselves a peaceful nation.

We have no business having a green-white-green national flag.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Americanisms Popularized by American Presidential Politics (I)

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

America exports its linguistic inventions, for the most part, through the scarcely perceptible but nonetheless potent osmotic pressure of its omnipresent pop culture—music, movies, media, etc. But with the progressive collapse of temporal and geographic boundaries that the Internet has enabled, America’s presidential politics is also helping to bring global attention to many peculiarly American expressions. 


If you’ve been following this year’s American presidential elections through the American news media and aren’t very familiar with American English, you’re probably puzzled by the expressions I outline below:

1.  “Double down on trickle down.” This quintessentially American English expression was popularized by former President Bill Clinton during his well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention on September 5 this year. In making the case for why Mitt Romney, the Republican Party candidate, must not be given a chance, Clinton said, “We cannot afford to double down on trickle down.” After Clinton’s speech, the search for “double down on trickle down” spiked on search engines. I imagine that most of the searches were from outside America. So what does the expression mean?

 Well, it’s a creative, rhythmic, distinctly Clintonian collocation of two peculiar Americanisms: “double down” and “trickle down.” “Double down” is originally a gambling terminology, which has been extended metaphorically in everyday American English to mean “significantly increase a risk, investment, or other commitment.” So to double-down on anything is to do it even more than you previously did. When you “double down” on a remark, for instance, it means you have restated it more forcefully.

 “Trickle down” (also called “trickle-down economics”), on the other hand, is the idea that all that a society needs to do to prosper is to first take care of its wealthy people who, because they are comfortable, will be in a position to take care of the less fortunate around them. That was why former president George W. Bush gave enormous tax breaks to the rich during his two terms as president. It was expected that once the wealthy made enormous profits, they would invest their money in the economy and provide jobs for people. Unfortunately, that hardly ever happens. The American economy collapsed in spite of (some would say because of) President Bush’s mollycoddling of the rich. 

So when Clinton said, “we cannot afford to double down on trickle down,” he was basically saying: with Romney as president, we would be increasing the risk of going ahead with a flawed economic philosophy that says we should ignore the poor, concentrate on the rich, and hope that the rich would take care of the poor once the rich are comfortable.

 Note that the term “trickle-down” or “trickle-down economics” is a pejorative term invented by the American left to ridicule the economic policies of Republicans. Mitt Romney has also invented the term “trickle-down government” to ridicule Democrats. It means growing the government (to the point of bankruptcy) so that it can take care of its citizens. For many non-Americans, that isn’t a persuasive criticism. While wealthy individuals have no sacred social contract to cater for the poor, the government does.

2. “Takes some brass to…” In the same Democratic National Convention speech, Bill Clinton defended Obama against attacks by Republican Party vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan in these words: “When Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama’s Medicare savings as ‘the biggest, coldest power play,’ I did not know whether to laugh or cry. Key cuts that $716 billion is exactly to the dollar the same amount of Medicare savings that he had in his own budget. It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.” 

 Immediately after the speech, I got a couple inquiries from my readers on Facebook asking to know what Clinton meant by “it takes some brass.” Brass means shameless boldness, impudence, nerve, chutzpah, etc. E.g. “He stole my property and when I caught him, he had the brass to ask me to apologize for calling him a thief.”

3. “Sugar high.” When a Mitt Romney political strategist called Neil Newhouse was asked to comment on Obama’s significant edge over Romney in the polls (which the American media like to call a “bounce in the polls”) in the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention, he said it was merely a consequence of “voters [feeling] a bit of a sugar high from the conventions.”
 
“Sugar high” is an Americanism typically used to describe the hyperactivity that children develop after drinking too much soft drink or after eating too many sugary things. Parents say when such hyperactive children play hard and “burn some energy,” the sugar high often dissipates. When applied to politics and other contexts, sugar high means ephemeral, fleeting enthusiasm. Supposedly, the “real,” lasting high comes from drinking alcohol and/or taking drugs. In other words, the real high in politics is the energy and fervor that come from winning elections, not from evanescent “bounces” in the opinion polls.

4. “Like An Etch A Sketch.” This is another metaphorical extension from children’s activity. When Mitt Romney’s adviser, known as Eric Fehrnstrom, was asked how his boss would face moderate voters in the general election in light of the extremist right-wing positions he took during the Republican primary election because of his desire to appeal to the Republican base, he said, “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.” 


An Etch-a-sketch is a children’s learning toy with a built-in erasing system that allows users to rub out what they scribbled on the screen of the toy with the touch of a knob. The adviser basically implied that Romney would repudiate all the extremist views he espoused during the Republican primaries and lie his way to the presidency. And that is precisely what he is doing now. Because of this remark, critics now call Romney an “Etch-a-sketcher.”

5. “Flip flopper.” In American English, to flip-flop is to continually change one’s decisions back and forth, and one who flip-flops is a “flip flopper.” As the “etch-a-sketch” comment above shows, Romney is often labeled a “flip flopper” by Democrats—and by some Republicans. 
In other contexts, flip flop is the name Americans use for what we call “(bathroom) slippers” in Nigerian English. Among its several other meanings, a flip-flop can also mean a “backward somersault.” My guess is that the sense of mercurial change of positions associated with “flip flopping” in American politics and in conversational American English is derived from the metaphorical extension of a backward somersault.

6. “Zingers.” In American informal (mostly media) English, a zinger is a sharp, aggressive, or intentionally amusing, and headline-worthy remark directed at an opponent, especially during a debate or a speech. During the first presidential debate, for instance, many Obama supporters were disappointed that he didn’t throw any “zingers” at Romney. In the second debate, however, the media said Obama and Romney threw many “zingers” at each other. 

To be continued next week

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