By Farooq Kperogi, Ph.D.
Of course, no one has the power to “ban” or approve anything in English. Not even the Queen or King of England has that authority or influence. Nobody does. No authority does. The emergence, popularity, decline, and death of words and expressions in English often happen naturally. This fact, however, shouldn’t preclude language enthusiasts from passing judgments on crooked, fetid, and questionable language use.
When language is fresh, evocative, clear, mellifluous, and grammatically correct and complete, we all love it. But we chafe at clichéd, error-ridden, and sterile language—what George Orwell once characterized as “lump of verbal refuse.” Here are my 5 candidates for the “lump of verbal refuse” in Nigerian English that should be tossed out into the linguistic wastebasket:
1. “Wailing wailer” or simply “wailer”: This agonizingly asinine Nigerian social media expression refers to a critic of the Buhari administration. It takes unbelievably remarkable stupidity to think that “wailing wailer” or “wailer” is an insult, but it bespeaks an even more astonishing height in the ignorance index to hurl it at an opponent and imagine you have done something great. Plus, it’s honestly getting nauseatingly stale and sterile. I delete people on my Facebook friend list who use the expression. I make exceptions for people who are personally known to me. If you charge me with linguistic intolerance I’ll gladly plead guilty.
In my September 6, 2015 article titled “From Febuhari to ‘Wailing Wailers’: Linguistic Creativity Decline of the Buhari Brand,” I wrote: “There is probably no clearer evidence of the creativity deficit of the president’s media men than that they've deployed the term ‘wailing wailers’ to describe critics of President Buhari.
“There are two things wrong with that expression. One, ‘Wailing Wailers’ is a historically positive term. It betrays spectacular creativity deficit to insult your opponent with a term of esteem. Anyone who knows a little bit about music history knows that ‘Wailing Wailers’ is one of the earliest names of the reggae band formed by Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in Jamaica.
“When the band was formed in the early 1960s, it was called ‘The Teenagers.’ A few years later, the band’s name changed to ‘The Wailing Rudeboys.’ The group again changed its name to the ‘Wailing Wailers.’ This change of name coincided with the time it was discovered by an influential Jamaican producer, who gave it national and international prominence.
“After some more years, the group changed its name to simply ‘The Wailers.’ When Peter Tosh pulled out of the band, it came to be known as ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers.’
“I grew up on Bob Marley’s music, and one of my trivial bragging rights is that I know every single song Bob Marley sang from the late 1960s till his death in 1981. To use the name of a progressive, emancipatory, anti-imperialist, pan-Africanist musical group as a term of insult is the height of ignorance!
“Let’s even assume that Adesina didn’t know of the ‘Wailing Wailers’ (which is unlikely, given his age and the fact that Bob Marley was a sensation in Nigeria in the 1970s and 1980s when he came of age), as a grammatical category, shorn of any association with Bob Marley and his band members, ‘wailing wailers’ is an idiotic turn of phrase. What else should wailers do but wail? Laugh? Smile? Well, they are wailers because they wail, which makes ‘wailing wailers’ pointless and, frankly, unimaginative phraseology. It’s like saying ‘writing writers,’ ‘singing singers,’ ‘lying liars,’ ‘fighting fighters,’ etc. That’s meaningless and unintelligent waste of words.
“This, of course, does not indict the original ‘Wailing Wailers.’ It was a trademark name, and trademark names enjoy the license to break grammatical conventions in the service of creativity. Just a few examples will suffice. A well-known India-based Coca Cola company called ‘Thums UP’ (with a thumps-up emblem) was probably so named in error, but when Coca Cola bought the company, the ‘error’ in its name was left untouched. ‘Dunkin' Donuts,’ a popular American brand, misspells ‘doughnut’ deliberately.
“Brand names are also notorious for leaving out apostrophes in their names. Prominent examples are Starbucks Coffee, Barclays, Michaels, etc. Two prominent Nigerian examples are Peoples Daily, which should properly be ‘People’s Daily,’ and All Progressives Congress, which should properly be ‘All Progressives’ Congress.’ So brand names intentionally contort the conventions of grammar for creativity, humor, marketing, etc.
“Adesina’s ‘wailing wailers’ isn’t a brand name; it’s just illiteracy. And the illiteracy he started is spreading and percolating in Nigerian cyberspace every day. Now Buhari’s army of self-appointed social media defenders habitually tag critics of the government as ‘wailing wailers’ and imagine themselves to be saying something meaningful. No, ‘wailing wailers,’ as a historical term, is a badge of honor. As a turn of phrase to insult an opponent, it’s imbecilic.”
2. “Do the needful.” This expression sprouted in Nigerian English in the twilight of the Goodluck Jonathan administration and has waxed thereafter. It should wane. It’s an excellent candidate for the Orwellian “lump of verbal refuse.”
As I pointed out in a February 8, 2015 article, “do the needful” is a really old-fashioned English expression that survives only in Indian English—and now in Nigerian English courtesy of our brain-dead politicians. CNN Travel identifies the phrase as one of “10 classic Indianisms,” Indianism being English usage unique to the Indian subcontinent. Many native English speakers are confounded by it. Where Nigerian politicians in the past would have said “do the right thing,” they now say “do the needful.” Unless you want to communicate with Indians, avoid the phrase like a plague.
3. “Sentiments.” This word is perhaps the worst victim of grammatical abuse in Nigerian English. In a December 3, 2009 titled “Why is ‘Sentiment’ Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?”, I wrote: “There is probably no more misused word in Nigerians’ demotic speech than the word ‘sentiment’—and its many inflectional variations, such as ‘sentiments,’ ‘sentimental,’ ‘sentimentalism,’ etc. In popular discourses, both at home and in the digital diaspora—and in blissful ignorance—Nigerians routinely do so much semantic violence to this harmless word.
“For instance, in everyday political conversations, it is customary to hear Nigerians enjoin their interlocutors to eschew ‘sentiments’ and instead consider the merit of an argument. An explicitly partisan argument is usually condemned as being mired in ‘sentiments.’ Writers and speakers who want to insulate themselves from charges of bias and prejudice declare their points of view as being free from or not inspired by ‘sentiments.’
“Any opinion that is adjudged to be ‘full of sentiments’—or ‘sentimental’— is often rhetorically marginalized. And so it is typical for Nigerians to preface potentially controversial or divisive remarks with phrases like ‘sentiments apart,’ ‘this is not about sentiments,’ ‘I’m not being sentimental but…,’
“So why is ‘sentiment’ such a bad word in Nigeria? Why do Nigerians strain hard to avoid even the remotest association with the word in their quotidian discursive engagements? Well, it is obvious that many, perhaps most, Nigerians understand the word ‘sentiment’ to mean scorn-worthy prejudice that is activated by visceral, unreasoning, primordial loyalties. That is why, in Nigerian English, expressions like ‘religious sentiments’ and ‘ethnic sentiments’ are synonymous with what Standard English speakers would recognize as ‘religious bigotry’ and ‘ethnic bigotry’ or, in a word, ethnocentrism….
“This permeative Nigerian (mis)usage of the word ‘sentiment’ has no basis in either the word’s etymology or its current Standard English usage. There is nothing even remotely dreadful about ‘sentiment’ in and of itself. Sentiment is, of course, a polysemous word (that is, it has a multiplicity of meanings) but, in all of its lexical ambiguity, it does not denote or connote bigotry or prejudice. In its most habitual usage, especially when it is used in the plural form, it merely means personal judgment, opinion, thought, view, etc., as in, ‘does anyone else share the sentiment that Nigerians widely hate and misuse the word ‘sentiment’? So, stripped to its barest essentials, ‘sentiments’ simply means opinions.”
4. “I appreciate.” Nigerians use the expression “I appreciate” as an alternative form of “thank you.” It’s obviously an inept attempt to imitate the Standard English expression “I appreciate it.” It’s also probably a product of interference from our native languages. The Hausa expression na gode, for instance, literally translates as “I appreciate” in English. But “I appreciate” is both unidiomatic and meaningless in English.
Here is what I wrote about the expression in my July 17, 2011 article titled “Most Popular Mangled Expressions in Nigerian English”: “When I lived in Nigeria, this expression was not part of the repertoire of popular speech. Its widespread use in contemporary Nigerian English must be the result of the relentless cross-border linguistic flows that the Internet has enabled. The phrase is clearly a poor mimicry of ‘I appreciate it,’ the alternative expression for ‘thank you’ in America, Canada, Britain, and other native-speaker linguistic climes.
“Without the addition of ‘it,’ ‘this,’ or ‘that,’ the phrase can only mean that the speaker or writer habitually shows appreciation but for nothing in particular; it does not convey the sense that he or she is thankful or grateful for a specific thing. The first time someone said ‘I appreciate’ to me in Nigeria, I couldn’t resist asking: ‘you appreciate what?’ As you can probably tell, that expression drives me crazy!”
“Appreciate” is a transitive verb that requires an object to complete its meaning. “Thank” is another example of a transitive verb. You can’t simply say “I thank” without sounding like you’re mentally subnormal. To be sensible, something has to come after “thank,” such as “I thank you.”
Intransitive verbs require no object. An example is the verb slept, as in “I slept.”
5. “More grease to your elbow” or simply “more grease.” The correct form of this peculiarly British English expression, which started as an Irish English expression, is “more power to your elbow.” But no one uses it now—except Anglophone West Africans who are wedded to its deformed version. In all countries where English is spoken as a native language, people simply say “more power to you!” I don’t know where Nigerians got their “grease” from.