"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Q and A on the Semantics of “Vice President as Coordinator” and “Chook”

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Q and A on the Semantics of “Vice President as Coordinator” and “Chook”

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

In this week’s Q and A, I am only able to feature two questions: the meaning of the (in)famous description of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo as a “coordinator” of the nation in presidential communication to the Senate and the proper verb to use to denote piercing of the skin.

Question:
President Muhammadu Buhari, in his recent letter to the Senate, wrote, “While I am away, the Vice President will coordinate the activities of the government.” This is generating a lot of controversy in Nigeria at the moment. From the perspective of language, what would you say? Did the president err? Or are people overreacting?

Answer:
The president’s choice of words represents, for me, an interesting clash of content and context and of denotation and connotation. On the surface (that is, in terms of content and denotation), the intent of the letter appears harmless and unambiguous: Yemi Osinbajo was elected Vice President, and has now been temporarily tasked with “[coordinating] the activities of the government” in the absence of the president. Looks normal.

But when you dig beyond the surface, that is, when you go into the terrain of context and connotation, it isn’t normal. First, because there can’t be a vacuum in governance, the person who stands in for the President while he is away for an extended period (and temporarily relinquishes his office) can no longer be addressed by his or her former title. In other words, Osinbajo can no longer be addressed as Vice President; he is properly the Acting President until the president returns and takes over from him. The president’s letter anticipates that Osinbajo would act as a temporary replacement for him.

To refer to Osinbajo as “Vice President” in the same sentence where “while I am away” appears implies that the president will still exercise substantive powers from his hospital bed in London. But the overall spirit of the letter vitiates that sense. After all, the letter said the president had no idea when he would return.


Similarly, when you read the letter merely “on the lines,” you might be led to suppose that the president actually intended to transfer substantive powers to the vice president when he said the VP would “coordinate the activities of the government” (since that is what the president presumably does), but reading “between the lines” leads to a different conclusion.

Here is where context comes in. Recall that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala used to be called “Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy.” In spite of her gratuitously superfluous title (who else but the finance minister should coordinate the economy?), she was still just a minister. Her being “coordinating minister” didn’t make her the president.

Referring to Osinbajo as Vice President and coordinator “of the activities of the government” undercuts and undermines his power as Acting President. It means that, just like Okonjo-Iweala, he is still Vice President (presumably answerable to a higher authority in Abuja while the president is away) who is nonetheless saddled with an additional, extra-constitutional responsibility to “coordinate the activities of the government.”

If the letter had said, “While I am away, the Acting President will coordinate the activities of the government,” the “coordinator” part of the sentence would have been of no consequence. It goes without saying that the president “coordinates the activities of the government,” and that whoever acts as his substitute would do the same. The fact that the letter had a need to state the obvious while not conceding the title of “Acting President” to a person who is standing in for the president raises a legitimate semantic quandary.

But it may well be that the drafter or drafters of the president’s letter are mere incompetent users of the English language, which would render all the feverish interpretive frenzy the letter has generated pointless.

Question:
When an object, such as a needle, penetrates one’s body, what verb should we use to convey that? Is it “chook,” “chuk,” or “shuck”?

Answer:
None of the above. West African Pidgin English speakers, of course, use the word “chook” (sometimes spelled “chuk”) where Standard English speakers would say “pierce,” “prick,” or “poke,” and the usage appears to have crept into Nigerian Standard English. (My definition of West African Pidgin English includes Cameroonian Pidgin English because it shares the same ancestry and structural attributes with other West African English-based pidgins and creoles).

The descriptivist in me would say “chook” is all fine and good since almost all Nigerian (and Cameroonian) English speakers understand what it means. Mutual understanding is the whole point of communication.

But I am assuming that you want to know if “chook” is comprehensible to other English speakers outside West Africa. Here is what I wrote on this in my September 2, 2012 column titled “The English Nigerian Children Speak (I)”:

“Chook: This is the word Nigerian children use where their counterparts in America and Britain would use ‘poke’ or ‘jab.’ Where Nigerian children would say, ‘I’ll chook you with this pencil,’ their American counterparts would say, ‘I’ll poke you with this pencil.’

“When I looked up ‘chook’ in the dictionary, I discovered that it is the alternative name for chicken in Australian and New Zealand English. I also found that people in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, The Bahamas, and other English-speaking Caribbean nations (most of whose inhabitants trace their ancestral roots to Nigeria, by the way) also use ‘chook’ in their informal English the way Nigerian children use it.

“This leads me to guess that the word is probably derived from a Nigerian language. Or it could very well be of Portuguese origin, which has contributed a few words to Nigerian Pidgin English, such as ‘pikin’ (which speakers of Jamaican Patois also use to mean ‘child’), sabi (know), palava (trouble), dash (gift), etc.”

Since writing that column, I also found out that “chook” is derived from the Middle English name for “chicken.” In Middle English (spoken from about 1100 to 1450), chicken was called “chukken.” By Shakespearean times (that is, from 1564 to1616), the word became “chuk,” and was also used as a term of endearment for a person. That is the sense of the term we find in Shakespeare’s Macbeth when he wrote: “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck.”

In parts of Britain (particularly Yorkshire and Liverpool) and in the whole of Australia and New Zealand, “chuk” (now spelled “chook”) still retains its early Modern English meaning of “chicken.”

So, clearly, the West African (Pidgin) English “chook” (or “chuk”), which is also present in Caribbean English, has no relation with the Australian/New Zealand/Yorkshire/Liverpool “chook.” It is therefore reasonable to assume that the “chook” in West African Pidgin English is derived from a West African language. My initial guess was that it was an Igbo word.

My guess was informed by the popular alliterative joke about a boy named Chukwu who was crying because he was pierced by a thorn. The joke goes that someone asked Chukwu’s sister why Chukwu was crying and she said, “Chuku-chuku chuk Chukwu!” That is, a thorn (which is called “chuku-chuku” in Nigerian and Cameroonian Pidgin English) poked (or “chuk”/ “chooked”) Chukwu.

This led me to think that “chuku-chuku” was the Igbo word for thorns, and that the Pidgin English verb “chook” or “chuk” derived from it. But I have found out that the Igbo word for thorn is “ogwu,” not “chuku-chuku,” and that “Chuku” is the alternate spelling for “Chukwu,” which means God in Igbo.

It’s entirely possible that “chuk” and “chuku-chuku” are loans from a southern Cameroonian language. When I find out the source of this interesting word, I will write an update.

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