By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
It is traditional for dictionaries and grammar mavens to choose their words of the year at the close of the year. Mine is “spended.” It is the nonstandard past tense of “spend,” which is popular with non-native English speakers particularly in Asia. But it was popularized in Nigeria by Minister of Youths and Sports Solomon Dalung.
In response to a charge by a member of Nigeria’s National Assembly that he was guilty of spending funds that were not appropriated by the National Assembly, Dalung said, “The funds spended were properly spended.” This provoked cacophonous digital guffaws all over cyber Nigeria. Of course, anybody with at least a secondary school education in an English-speaking country should know that the past tense of “spend” is “spent,” not “spended.” Nevertheless, “spended” is my word of the year. I will explain why shortly.
But, first, I think it is fair to admit that Solomon Dalung isn’t ignorant of the past tense of “spend.” He knows it is “spent.” What’s my evidence? Well, during the same National Assembly hearing where he said “spended,” he actually said the following: “450 million was appropriated for Olympics and we spent far, far beyond that.” Note that he didn’t say “we spended far, far beyond that.”
I have taught public speaking for many years here in the US and know for a fact that stage fright can cause people to say the most inane and incomprehensible things. For instance, in 2007, an American teenage contender for the Miss Teen USA title by the name of Lauren Caitlin Upton shocked the world with an outrageously incoherent babble in response to a question.
She was asked, "Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?" Her response was:
“I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because, uh, some, uh, people out there in our nation don't have maps and, uh, I believe that our education like such as in South Africa and, uh, the Iraq, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S. should help the U.S., uh, or, uh, should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries, so we will be able to build up our future. For our children.”
If you can make sense of that, please let me know. I can’t. No American can. But Upton was not dumb. She was a smart, articulate young lady who was just flustered by all the pressure and attention on her. She later made appearances on TV stations to redeem herself.
Given all the negative publicity he causes by his impolitic utterances and spectacular cluelessness, it is reasonable to assume that Dalung was all hot and bothered by the piercing, adversarial interrogation of the National Assembly member—amid cameras and hostile journalists. Anyone in his situation would be liable to mix up their tenses and numbers.
This in no way suggests that, at the best of times, Dalung speaks proper English. He doesn’t. But I chalk that up to the fact that although he has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law (and language is one of the tools of the trade for lawyers, as it is for journalists) and taught law at the University of Jos, he actually went to university as an adult after working in the Nigerian prison service for years. We should cut the poor man some slack.
Why “Spended” is My Word of the Year
So why do I still think a word that is transparently nonstandard and that was uttered in error should be a word of the year? Two reasons. One, no word has excited and captured the imagination of Nigerians this year as much as “spended” has. It has inspired frenetic online conversations and countless humorous, creative memes and cartoons. That alone qualifies the word as a candidate for word of the year.
Second, as I have pointed out in many of my past columns (see, for instance, my February 3, 2013 article titled “How Political Elite Influence English Grammar and Vocabulary” from where many examples in this column are drawn), political and cultural elites are often great drivers of language change in the world. Their grammatical and lexical transgressions often end up being normalized and becoming new standards. A few examples will suffice.
A few days ago, American President-Elect Donald Trump, in a tweet, wrote “Unpresidented” when he meant to write “Unprecedented.” He later deleted the tweet after he was mocked, but the (London) Guardian nominated “Unpresidented” as its word of the year.
The four definitions the paper gave of the word are priceless. The first was, “An instance of someone being ‘prepared to say what most of us are thinking’, but actually saying things most of us are not thinking.” The second definition was, “An irrecoverable act of folly committed by a president.” The third definition was, “Feeling of loss when a president who has neither the temperament nor the knowledge to actually be president is elected president, causing one to wonder who will actually be running the country and triggering feelings of malaise and dread.” The fourth definition was succinct and ominous: “The state of an impeached president.”
Similarly, during the controversy over the building of a mosque near the World Trade Center in New York in 2010, former Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin tweeted the following: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.”
She meant to write “repudiate,” but probably also thought of “refute” and then got confused, so she blended “repudiate” and “refute” to form “refudiate.” Of course, critics and grammar purists pounced on her immediately. But Oxford Dictionaries made “refudiate” its word of the year in 2010. The word now appears in many online dictionaries. Dictionary.com, for instance, defines refudiate as, “to reject as untrue or refuse to acknowledge,” but adds that the word is nonstandard.
Former US president George W. Bush also once meant to say “underestimate” but ended up saying “misunderestimate” in error. Cambridge-educated British journalist Philip Hensher called “misunderestimate” one of Bush’s "most memorable additions to the language, and an incidentally expressive one: it may be that we rather needed a word for 'to underestimate by mistake'." Now, the word has entries in most online dictionaries, although it’s still classified as nonstandard.
Even Hillary Clinton’s description of Donald Trump supporters as “deplorables” was initially done in error. “Deplorable” isn’t a noun in any dictionary; it’s an adjective. Adjectives aren’t pluralized; only nouns are. So, by current standards, the proper, grammatically acceptable way to say what she said should have been “deplorable people.”
But she has helped to push the boundaries of the language, and her social and cultural capital might cause “deplorable” to be recognized as a noun—the same way initially exclusively adjectival words like “catholic,” “alcoholic,” “protestant,” “great” are now nominalized and pluralized as “Catholics,” “protestants,” “alcoholics,” “greats,” etc. “Illegals” (short for illegal immigrants) is also becoming mainstream in American English, although American journalism professors still penalize students who write the word in news stories because the Associated Press Stylebook frowns upon it.
Finally, America’s 29th president, Warren Gamaliel Harding, popularized the previously non-existent word “normalcy” (instead of “normality”) during his presidential campaign in 1920. His first mention of “normalcy” occurred during a political speech when he said, “America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration.” He was ridiculed for not saying “normality.”
But “normalcy” is now an acceptable word in American English, although it is still resisted in British English. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “normalcy” has, in the course of the years, become “recognized as standard by all major dictionaries,” pointing out that “there is no need to avoid its use.”
So if the unintentional lexical transgressions of the political elites of native English speakers get celebrated and even normalized, why can’t Solomon Dalung’s nonstandard “spended” be my—in fact Nigerian English’s—word of the year?
But how do you suggest we define the word? If I get enough thoughtful, witty responses, I might publish them in my next column.
I have been told by many people—and I have confirmed—that “spended” has an entry in the Urban Dictionary. I have also been made aware that some people have argued that the word’s presence in the online dictionary legitimizes it. That’s not true. The Urban Dictionary is a user-generated dictionary that anyone can edit. All the words and definitions in the dictionary are entered by users. The most “upvoted” definitions (by other users) rise to the top and the most “downvoted” get bumped.
Politics of Grammar Column
Politics of Grammar Column