"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 10/27/13

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Q and A on Grammar, Gender, “Alumni” and “Thuggery”

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

In this edition of my Q and A series, I answer questions on why it’s wrong for a woman to say—as Nigerian women do—that she’s “pregnant for” a man, why “spinster” is no longer an appropriate word to refer to all unmarried women, and on how to correctly use “alumnus,” “alumni,” “alumna,” and “alumnae.” I also answer a question about whether or not the word “thuggery” is a uniquely Nigerian English word. Enjoy.


Question:
A contributor to your column once observed that it is only Nigerian women who say they are “pregnant for” their husbands or fianc├ęs or boyfriends. What is grammatically wrong with saying that? What do native English speakers say to indicate that a man is responsible for a pregnancy?

Answer:
Well, in response to the observation of the commenter, who lives in London, I wrote:  “Yes, it is true that only Nigerians say a woman is pregnant ‘for a man.’ It’s probably a translation of socio-cultural thoughts from some Nigerian languages, but the Nigerian languages I am familiar with have no equivalent expression for that phrase. I will only add that native English speakers usually say they are…‘pregnant by a man’ to show that the ‘man’ is responsible for the pregnancy. Americans (both wife and husband) now say ‘we are pregnant’!”

Now that I think about it again, it seems to me that the tendency for Nigerian women to say that they are “pregnant for” a man is a reflection of their internalization of and capitulation to the dominant patriarchal arrogance in the Nigerian society. The phrase gives ownership of the child to the man— to the exclusion of the woman who carries the baby in her stomach for nine months. Since a child is biologically half of both its father and its mother, it is illogical to say you’re pregnant “for” a man. In fact, only the mother can logically claim ownership of a pregnancy. As the commenter you referred to said, “A woman cannot be pregnant for somebody else except for herself!” Being responsible for a pregnancy doesn’t give a man ownership of it; at best it gives the man part ownership of it. Maybe a surrogate mother can correctly say she’s “pregnant for” another woman or a couple since the woman or the couple takes ownership of the child after delivery.

Saying you’re “pregnant for” a man is especially problematic because while a child’s maternal connection is often never in contention (except in rare cases of child swapping in hospitals), its paternity is never always indisputably self-evident except through DNA testing or noticeably striking resemblance. That’s why Americans humorously say “Mommy’s baby, daddy’s maybe.”

Question:
I met an American girl online some time ago. In the course of our chat, she told me she wasn’t married, so I said something about her being a “spinster” and she got upset. What’s wrong with calling an unmarried woman a spinster? What am I missing?

Answer:
You’re missing a lot. In contemporary English usage, the word spinster is considered pejorative. Careful speakers and writers avoid it. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “In modern everyday English spinster cannot be used to mean simply 'unmarried woman'; it is now always a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed."

So, by the conventions of modern usage, it’s incorrect to call a young woman in her 20s or 30s—or maybe even early 40s— a “spinster.” The word is reserved only for women who are still unmarried—and childless— by the time they reached or are approaching menopause. 

American English uses “bachelorette” or “bachelor girl” to refer to an unmarried young woman. Note, though, that these terms are absent in British English, although America’s cultural dominance ensures that they are widely understood. “Single” or “single woman” appears to be the preferred term across all native English varieties.

Question:
I am often confused about the right word to use to describe a former student of a school. Is it alumni, alumna or alumnus?

Answer:
Even native English speakers are confused by these words, and it’s because the words are part of the few Latin borrowings in English that have not been Anglicized; they still retain their Latin inflections for gender and number.

A former student of a school who is male is called an “alumnus.” The plural is “alumni.” A former student of a school who is female is called an “alumna.” The plural is “alumnae.” However, the male plural, that is, “alumni,” is used as the plural of choice for all former students of a school irrespective of gender. So it is correct to say the “alumni of Bayero University Kano” even though the university has both male and female former students. But it is incorrect to use “alumni” to refer to all-female former students of a school. The correct word is “alumnae.” For example, it is wrong to say “the alumni of Federal Government Girls’ College Bakori.” Replace “alumni” with “alumnae.”

Because of the difficulty in remembering the subtleties of usage between alumnus, alumna, alumni, and alumnae, native English speakers have informally invented “alum” as a catch-all, gender-neutral, singular form for former students, as in “she is an alum of ABU,” “he is an alum of Barewa College.”

Your question reminded me of a recent comical incident that happened on a Nigerian online discussion forum. A conceited and overly self-assertive Nigerian who lives in the United States wanted to impress members of the discussion forum by claiming that he was “an alumni of Harvard Business School.” Someone pointed out that a person who went to Harvard should know enough to know that “alumni” is a plural noun and can’t be used to refer to a single former student. Instead of accepting the correction in good faith, the ignorant braggart defended his solecism. So someone on the discussion board sent an email to Harvard Business School to find out if indeed someone by his name graduated from their school. It turned out that he didn’t get a degree from the school; he only attended a one-week workshop organized by Harvard Business School at a city other than where the school is located!

Question:
Someone told me that the word “thuggery” is a uniquely Nigerian English word. The person seems to be right because each time I type the word on Microsoft Word it always gets underlined. Please let us know if the word is indeed exclusive to Nigeria.

Answer:
You are the third person to ask this question. No, it’s not at all true that “thuggery” is an idiosyncratic Nigerian English word. It occurs regularly in native-speaker English, and is derived from “thug,” which means an aggressive or violent criminal. It entered the English language in the 1800s from the Hindi word “thag,” which means a rogue, a thief, a scoundrel, or a cheat. In the past, in India, there existed a professional association of thieves and assassins who murdered their victims by strangulating them. They were called “Thag.” When reference is made to this group the first letter in the word is always capitalized, as in “Thug.”

When I checked the British National Corpus, I saw several past and contemporary uses of “thuggery.” Recently, too, conservative Republican House of Representatives member Michele Bachmann caused a stir when she accused President Obama of“thuggery.” “I think we could be on the cusp of seeing civil disobedience — I’m not saying I want civil disobedience — but people aren’t going to take the thuggery of this president much longer. We see thuggery going on in the White House. We’re not going to take it,” she said.

So, thuggery is by no means an exclusively Nigerian word. The fact that Microsoft Word underlines it says nothing about its use and acceptance in native-speaker English. Microsoft Word, as you probably know, has a very limited internal dictionary.

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