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Re: Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and communication breakdown

I have continued to receive a profusion of thoughtful responses from both the online and print readers of this column. This week, I am publi...

I have continued to receive a profusion of thoughtful responses from both the online and print readers of this column. This week, I am publishing some of the responses I received on the above topic. It is a mix of commendation and additional anecdotal examples on how Nigerianisms collide with other English varieties to produce communication breakdowns. Together, they make for an interesting and insightful read. Enjoy.

Thanks for these. I read them with interest and amusement. I speak an amalgam of British and Nigerian English and often surprise Americans. A couple more examples that might interest you:

A Nigerianism that I have used, and that receives laughs here, is ‘Trafficator’ for indicator. Many Americans have also never heard the British terms boot and bonnet for a car’s trunk and hood respectively.

Iruka Okeke, USA (

Absolutely thrilling, this! Question paper is “test paper” (a better expression, if you ask me) but which American students further shortened to just “test.” Are you ever going to go into spellings - which Microsoft is using its dominant software to inexorably obliterate the real English? Let me greet your efforts in the Nigerian way: Well done; you have tried.

Ogbuagu Anikwe, Abuja (

You are quite right. There indeed is a Nigerian English Language. Those who say or wish there was no such thing are wrong.

Incidentally, the American current usage of “international” for “foreign” is recent. Possibly as late as the 80’s there were “Foreign Students,” “Foreign Medical Graduates” ( FMGs), etc. The connotation in this latter usage quite often carried a subtle discriminatory consequence for the “foreigner” in many parts of the US. “International” is a contemporary softening— to be politically correct with respect to globalization.

Of course, words often mean something totally different between one era and another. For example the word “queer”.

I recall an event in my early days here. I and a student from Kenya, in our first semester in a US University, went to the College Bookstore to get our first supplies. A young store keeper (actually a student working there) approached us to offer help. She obviously knew that we were Africans (there were only about 15 in a campus of 15,000 students) and that we were among the first wave coming into their part of the world. She tried to make small talk with us (perhaps as a curiosity and her very first contact with an African). After a lot of “What’s that?” “Come again,” etc” (She was having trouble understanding us and frankly I was having trouble at the time understanding some of the Kenyan’s English accent), the Kenyan said to her “Rubber, we are looking for rubber. Do you have any here?”

Well, this young female turned beet red with embarrassment. The sweet smile on her face shriveled up. Her knees almost buckled as she hastened to get hold of the lone male store keeper in the large bookstore. She did not repeat to him what she thought we had asked for. “I think they are looking for something. I don’t know. May be you can help them”.

Well, the man came over. By now I had picked up a note pad and pencil and by sign language sandwiched between words tried to make him understand that we were looking for something to wipe a pencil mark off a paper if we so wished. “Oh!” he let out with relief. “Yea, Yea, Yea, Sir. You mean EEERASSER”. Come with me. Here...”

We took our pick. We were rearing to get to our first class after the weekend of settling into our dormitories. As we walked out we looked around for the young woman so we may thank her and say good-bye. She, of course, was no where near us. She looked very busy rearranging books and other store items in a safe corner of the store. As we exited the door I looked back and saw a stolen glance of incredulity in her eyes.

“Rubber!”. American for condom. Realize this was way before anyone in this nation would openly talk about condom even though as we later learned their sex shops were chuck full of unimaginable sex toys. Just that you did not talk about it openly. It was still Elizabethan in its sexual mores.

Also (as we would learn later) the whites looked upon Africans as “sexually overcharged animals”. So here we came already fired up to corrupt the pious society that intended to give us a “good education!” My guess is that the male store keeper probably did not go into details with her as to what we finally purchased because to do that would have been too indelicate and awkward for each of them.

I suspect that the young woman disseminated this encounter to her girl friends on campus and that her friends went home and told their mothers and that a legion of mothers enjoined their daughters to keep a clear distance from those “black perverts” just brought into their community by the College! We were never hassled in any way but I always wondered in retrospect whether there were no observant eyes trained at us whenever we engaged any of the girls we later came to know, even befriend, on campus.

“Rubber” “Eraser” what does it mean? Just depends on where you are and the era of the word usage.

There is Hinglish, Hawaiian English, West African Pidgin, Jamaican Labrish, etc. I am not even sure that the English themselves are that conservative in trying to maintain pure “Queen’s English”. They can’t really be because as much as it has become the most widely used lingua franca for global communication, it also is forced to have regional “dialects” (spoken and written) and, of course, it co-opts many words from other languages.

I do not in anyway imply that there should be an anything-goes usage of this language but I just was trying to say that I enjoyed reading your piece.

Dr. Chukuma Okadigwe, USA (

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Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and communication breakdown

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