By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Before any smug philistine confronts me with the usual inane retort that grammar is the least of Nigeria’s worries now, let me state that this is a grammar column. On this page, which first appears in the Sunday Trust, I talk only about grammar, language, and usage. Nothing else. That’s why the column is called “Politics of Grammar.” My “Notes from Atlanta” column in the Weekly Trust addresses broader, less restricted, and more variegated subject-matters. So spare me the trite, tired tripe about what I need to worry about—or about the fact that English isn’t native to Nigeria.
Paying attention to the grammar of the president of a country isn’t a trifling matter. It’s imperative in its own right. As I stated in my January 27, 2013 column titled “President Goodluck Jonathan’s Grammatical Boo-boos,” “the usage patterns of the elite of any country--especially of the president, who is the most important political and cultural figure in a country--tend to get naturalized and imitated by the general population over time.” That’s why presidents of countries are often trend-setters in the language commonly used in the countries they govern.
That’s certainly true of the United States where presidents routinely contribute to shaping the contours of the English language. I am reading an exciting little book titled Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents, which I will review for this column in the coming weeks, that chronicles common words and phrases that are now central to the lexical and idiomatic rhythm of the English, but that were invented or made popular by American presidents either deliberately or initially in error. A few examples mentioned in the book are “normalcy,” “belittle,” “lengthy,” “military industrial complex,” “lunatic fringe,” “dark horse,” “frazzle,” “manifest destiny,” etc.
This election season, President Jonathan has been particularly hard on the English language. It’s like he’s on a rampage, on a linguistic murderous rage. Poor English! Well, see below some of the president’s grammatical slip-ups that stuck out like a sore thumb.
1. “Senior citizen.” Apparently, the president thinks “senior citizen” is synonymous with “(elder) statesman.” He is wrong. But, first, the context.
Smarting from recent vicious attacks on him by former President Obasanjo, President Jonathan couldn’t wait to hit back at his former benefactor. So, on January 7, 2014, when Northern Elders’ Council chairman Tanko Yakassai led members of his group to the Aso Rock Presidential Villa, President Jonathan seized the moment to strip Obasanjo of his “senior citizen” status and to demote him to a mere “motor park tout.”
“And your commitment to ensure we live in peace and harmony that is what citizens especially our senior citizens should do just like you have been doing,” President Jonathan told Yakassai. “Some people call themselves statesmen but they are not statesmen; they are just ordinary politicians. For you to be a statesman, it is not because you have occupied a big office before but the question is what are you bringing to bear?
“Some people are hiding under some cloaks, some big names and creating a lot of problems in this country, making provocative statements in this country—statements that will set this country ablaze and you tell me you are a senior citizen. You are not a senior citizen. You can never be. You are ordinary motor park tout because if you are a senior citizen you will act like one.”
People don’t become “senior citizens” through a presidential imprimatur—and they certainly don’t stop being “senior citizens” on account of a petulantly tempestuous presidential animadversion. “Senior citizen” is merely a euphemistic expression for an old person. Most dictionaries define a senior citizen as any person who is 65 years and older. Obasanjo is officially over 70 years old. That makes him a senior citizen. So when Jonathan said, “You are not a senior citizen. You can never be ,” he clearly had no clue what he was talking about. Senior citizenship isn’t an earned title; it’s invariably biological and chronological.
The term “senior citizen,” interestingly, first emerged in America in 1938 during campaigns for the country’s midterm elections which saw President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic Party losing 72 seats in the House of Representatives and 7 seats in the Senate but still managing to maintain control of the Congress. “Senior citizens” was used euphemistically to refer to old Americans whose votes the Republican and Democratic parties courted aggressively. The term later crossed over to British English—and to other varieties of English. American English speakers now just say “senior(s)” instead of “senior citizen(s),” although “senior citizen(s)” still appears in America’s informal and formal registers.
British English speakers also use the term “golden ager” as an alternative to “senior citizen.”
2. “Motor park tout.” The president also called Obasanjo a “motor park tout.” That is problematic, if excusable, phraseology. In Nigerian English “motor park touts” are people who earn a living by soliciting passengers for commercial transport drivers at “motor parks” (another uniquely Nigerian English expression, as I pointed out in my April 27, 2014 column titled “Q and A on Nigerian English Expressions and Other Usage Concerns”)
They are paid a token for every passenger they send to drivers, and have a reputation for being aggressive, crude, vulgar, untutored, and uncouth. So when Nigerians describe somebody as a “motor park tout” they usually mean such a person is tastelessly indecent or lacking refinement. That was the sense of the term President Goodluck Jonathan had in mind when he obliquely insulted former President Olusegun Obasanjo as a “motor park tout” for being openly critical of his administration.
This usage will puzzle many native English speakers. In Standard English, especially in Standard British English, a tout is understood as a person “who advertises for customers in an especially brazen way.” That sense appears consistent with Nigerian “motor park touts” who often pester potential passengers in an annoyingly aggressive manner. In British English a tout can also mean a person who buys things, usually tickets for an event, and resells them to people at a price several times higher than the original. American English speakers call such a person a “scalper.”
In Irish and Scottish English, a tout has a completely different meaning. It is used to refer to someone who betrays his group members by sharing their confidential information with the police or other authority. American English speakers also use tout, usually “le tout,” to refer to the social, political, and cultural elite of a city, as in “le tout Abuja admired him.” This sense of the term is derived from French where “le tout Paris,” which literally means “all of Paris,” is used to refer to the upper crust of the Parisian society.
It appears that when Nigerian English speakers call people “touts” they usually mean “thugs.”
3. "How much did Jim Nwobodo stole?” During a campaign stop in Enugu, the president was reported to have uttered the following cringe-worthy grammatical howlers: “How much did Jim Nwobodo stole? Money not up to the price of a Peugeot and Buhari regime send him to jail. Is that good enough?"
In English grammar when the base form of a verb (which is “steal” in President Jonathan’s quoted statement above) is preceded by an auxiliary verb (such as “did,” “might,” “should,” etc.) the base form of the verb is never inflected for tense. In other words, when “did” comes before a main verb in a sentence, the main verb always remains in the present tense.
Examples: “What did he say to you?” “Did he say anything to you?” “When I saw her last year, I didn’t like her.” “He did come to my house yesterday.” As you can see, the main verbs in the examples (“say,” “like,” and “come”) are not marked for past tense. So “how much did Jim Nwobodo stole?” should be “how much did Jim Nwobodo steal?” That’s a basic grammar rule that is taught in primary and secondary schools in Nigeria and the rest of the English-speaking world.
But while the president added an unnecessary past tense to a verb that was preceded by an auxiliary verb, he neglected to mark a main verb for past tense when he was supposed to. He said, “Buhari regime send him to jail.” That should properly be “[the] Buhari regime sent him to jail.” Or “the Buhari regime did send him to jail.”