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Top Cutest and Strangest Nigerian English Idioms

By Farooq A. Kperogi What appears below was first published in three installments in my language column in the (Nigerian) People's Dai...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

What appears below was first published in three installments in my language column in the (Nigerian) People's Daily.

The word “idiom” has a multiplicity of significations, but I use it in this series to denote an expression whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the constituent lexical units that make it up. That’s the way the term is understood and  used among professional grammarians.

So, for instance, we can’t predict the meaning of the idiom “pull someone’s leg” (which means to tease someone) from looking at the individual dictionary meanings of the words “pull” and “leg.” As this example shows, idioms are usually figurative—and are often colloquial metaphors that are widely understood within localized cultures but that may be completely meaningless outside these cultures.

 That is precisely why idioms can be notoriously difficult for people who are not socialized in the cultural universes in which these expressions germinated. But some idioms can have universal intelligibility within a language, such as many English idioms. Idioms also sometimes defy the conventional logic of grammar.

Phrasal verbs, also called multi-word verbs, are also regarded as idioms. They are those colloquial, Anglo-Saxon alternatives to Latinate expressions, such as “put up with” for “tolerate”; “put at a loss” for “bewilder”; “put up” for “domiciliate,” etc.

 Lastly, idioms are often fixed, fossilized phrases that are not susceptible to lexical substitution. For example, you cannot replace “leg” with “finger” in the idiom “pull someone’s leg.” This quality is called grammatical fixity.

 There are expressions in Nigerian English that meet the criteria to be called idioms. So I choose to call them Nigerian English idioms, although Professor David Jowitt, the native English professor who has been teaching English in Nigeria since 1963, prefers to call them “Popular Nigerian English” expressions, which he says consist of “both errors and variants that are idiomatic and regularly occurring forms”(47).

From my own reflections, there seem to be four main sources of Nigerian English idioms: obsolete British English, Biblical English, distortion of extant Standard English idioms, and direct translations from native Nigerian languages, usually by way of Pidgin English. Here below are the Nigerian English idioms that strike me as the cutest and strangest.

1. "Put to bed." This widely used Nigerian English expression means “to give birth to a baby,” as in: “my wife put to bed yesterday.” It is an outdated British English idiom, which means “to deliver in, or to make ready for, childbirth.” But most speakers of contemporary British English have no earthly clue what this phrase means now. The modern senses of the phrase “put to bed” in both British and American English exclude the way we use it in Nigeria.

The commonest meaning of “put to bed” is to literally help a child or someone who is incapacitated by a chronic illness or injury to a bed. It is also used in printing or book publishing to mean finishing preparation for printing or going to press.

2. “Blue film.” This expression for what modern American and British speakers call “adult movie” is also widely used in Indian English. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that the phrase has British roots. But it seems that only Nigerian and Indian English retain its present sense; it’s not an everyday expression outside of Indian and Nigerian English.

3.  “Eye service.” When I told a friend that I was compiling a compendium of unique Nigerian English idioms, he suggested this phrase to me. But it turns out that although it is used more often in Nigerian English than it is in American or British English, it is actually a Biblical expression. While “eye service” now literally means the services of an eye doctor in modern American English, it was used in the Bible to mean “service rendered in word not in deed.” The Word Spy says it’s a play on “lip service.” The Free Dictionary also defines it as “service performed only under inspection, or the eye of an employer.” This is still the way that the expression is used in Nigerian English.

According to the Bible Encyclopedia, “eye service” appears in Colossians 3: 22 in the following sentence: “Servants, obey in all things them that are your masters according to the flesh; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord.” It also appears in Ephesians 6:6 in the following sentence: “Let it not be in acts of eye-service as if you had but to please men, but as Christ's bondservants who are doing God's will from the heart.”

This does not surprise me at all. Biblical English expressions, most of which are now considered old-fashioned in modern American and British English, are a rich source of Nigerian English in general. To give just one other example: British and American speakers don’t use the word “harlot,” the Biblical word for prostitute, in their everyday conversations. It has fallen into disuse in these countries. But it is still actively used in Nigerian English.

4.  “Shine your eyes.” It means “see the truth and not be fooled,” or “look carefully,” or “be careful.” For me, this is one of the cutest expressions in the English language, although its intelligibility is limited to West Africa. (The phrase is also used liberally in Liberian English).

 When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, this expression was confined to Nigerian Pidgin English, but it has now crept into educated Nigerian English.

5. “Not far-fetched.” This expression means “obvious” in Nigerian English. The phrase typically occurs this way: “The Yar’adua cabal was desperate. The reason for their desperation was not far-fetched: they wanted to cover their dirty tracks.” But in Standard English, “far-fetched” means implausible, unlikely to be true, provoking disbelief, as in: “that was a farfetched excuse.” Or: “the idea that the Arewa Consultative Forum would campaign for President Goodluck Jonathan to be elected for another term in 2011 is rather far-fetched.”

6. “To take in.” In Nigerian English, this expression means “to become pregnant.” I searched for evidence of the occurrence of this phrase in old-fashioned British English. My efforts didn’t yield any results.

But it seems entirely plausible that its origins are traceable to Britain because it doesn’t seem like a phrase that will be invented by Nigerians. Most Nigerian linguistic inventions describe objects or express thoughts that are not lexicalized in English.

Anyway, the commonest meanings of this phrase in standard varieties of British and American English are: “to provide shelter to somebody,” as in: “he had no where to sleep, so we took him in” and “to fool/hoax/deceive,” as in: “the scammer took me in completely.” The phrase has at least six other common meanings in modern dictionaries, but none makes reference to the way we use it in Nigeria.

7. “Not on seat.” This is the Nigerian English expression for “away from or not in the office.” It’s not clear how this expression sprang in Nigerian English. Again, I can only surmise that it’s probably archaic British English, although I have not found any evidence for this except that it also regularly appears in Ugandan English. For evidence, see this (Ugandan) Daily Monitor article of March 28, 2010 where the author, who is obviously Ugandan, wrote: “My phone calls to Mr Oboroi (owner/manager) were not helpful since he was not on seat (yawn) and there was nothing that he could do to alleviate the situation save an apology.”

The expression is demotic and respectable enough in Nigerian English that even Chinua Achebe deploys it in a dialogue between his characters in the Anthills of the Savannah. On page 171 of the novel, Colonel Johnson Ossai says, “I have tried him at the Ministry of Information several times but he is not on seat. I have tried his house but no answer. I wonder . . . erm ... if you know…erm…his whereabouts.”

Our newspapers routinely write about public officers not being “on seat” to indicate they are away from their offices. “If [Yaradua] is not on seat for sometime, definitely the machinery of government will slow down…” the Sun wrote on January 18, 2010. In fact, the Nigerian Tribune quoted a Professor Godwin Onu, rector of the Federal Polytechnic, Oko, as railing against the “not-on-seat syndrome” in Nigeria!

8. “To ease oneself." An alternative version of this idiom—which is completely absent in Nigerian English—is “to ease nature.” It means to urinate or defecate. This is an extremely archaic British English euphemism that has survived in Nigerian English—or perhaps West African English.

None of the current meanings of “ease” in modern dictionaries encapsulates this sense of the term. In American and British Standard English, the commonest uses of “ease” are: to move gently or carefully, as in: “he eased himself gently into the chair”; lessen pain or discomfort, as in: “the drug will ease the pain in your legs”; make easier, as in: “you could ease the problem by delegating duties to your subordinates”; lessen the intensity of something, as in: “the news eased my conscience.” There are many more modern uses of “ease” in contemporary dictionaries, but none of them refers to defecating or urinating.

9. "K-leg.” This is the Nigerian English word for the inward slant of the thigh that Americans and Britons call “knock knee” (adjective: knock-kneed). But in Nigerian English, “K-leg” means more than knock knee; it is also often used figuratively to refer to something that has gone awry, as in: “his plans have developed K-leg.”

My sense is that this expression slipped into educated Nigerian English through Pidgin English, although Americans also use the expression to describe K-shaped legs of tables. But I have never read or heard “K-leg” being used either literally or figuratively in reference to human beings in either American English or British English.

10. “Life history.” This phrase is used in Nigerian English where “life story” or “biography” would be preferred in British and American English. In Standard English, the phrase “life history” has mostly technical uses. It is used in biology and anthropology, for instance, to mean the life cycle of organisms. But it is usual to encounter expressions like “that man’s life history is inspiring” in educated Nigerian English.

11.  “Quite an age.” It’s an alternative expression for “long time no see” in Nigerian English. I have searched in dictionaries, books of idioms, and on the internet to identify the provenance of this expression. I have so far been unsuccessful. I have found it only on Nigeria-related internet sites or from Nigerian contributors to international online discussion forums. Unlike other idiosyncratic Nigerian expressions, "quite an age" doesn’t seem like old-fashioned British English. But it certainly isn’t a translation of native Nigerian languages either.

The native idiomatic expression for “long time no see” in Yoruba is “eku jo meta,” which roughly translates as “it’s been three days”; in Hausa it’s “kwana biu,” which translates as “two days”; in Batonu, my language, it’s “bese ka so yiru,” which roughly translates as “it’s been two days”; and so on.  The number of days in these expressions is not meant to be understood literally; it is used symbolically to connote a long time lapse.

“Quite an age” does not translate well in many Nigerian languages with which I am familiar. I hope someone reading this knows the origin of this really strange Nigerian English idiom.

12.  “More grease to your elbow” or simply “more grease.” This is the default expression many Nigerians deploy when they want to say “bravo” or “well done” or just express applause for a nice job. It is certainly a distortion of the antiquated British expression “more power to your elbow,” which is derived from Irish English. But why do Nigerians render the expression as “more grease to your elbow” instead of the original “more power to your elbow”? It seems to me that it is because of the false attraction of the unrelated Standard English idiom “elbow grease,” which simply means hard work, that is, the use of physical energy, as in: “carpentry requires a lot of elbow grease.”

 13. “To rub minds.” A language columnist in a Nigerian newspaper once wrote that this expression is uniquely Nigerian. I have found that this is not true. It’s actually an old-fashioned American English expression. Americans now tend to use the word “brainstorm” in its place. But “brainstorm” sounds rather formal, even pretentious, in Nigerian English.

14.  “A cog in the wheel of progress,” also sometimes rendered as “a clog in the wheel of progress.” This is undoubtedly derived from the distortion of the Standard English idiom “a cog in the wheel,” also rendered as a “cog in the machine.” It means an insignificant but nonetheless essential person in a large organization, as in: “The lowly civil servant is a cog in the ministry’s machine.” But Nigerians use the idiom to mean a stumbling-block, a hindrance, as in: “Don’t mind that yeye [good-for-nothing] man; he is a cog [or clog] in the wheel of progress."

15.  “We are managing”/ “we are surviving.” When we say we are “managing” in Nigeria we usually mean that we are not doing well, that we are almost on the edge of existence (example: "My brother, the country is hard. I am just managing"). In American and British English, however, to be managing is to be successful, to achieve one’s goals. So where we would say we are “managing,” Americans and Britons would say they are “just surviving.” To us, however, to be surviving is to overcome, to be in control.

An American researcher called Rachel Reynolds who wrote about the Nigerian immigrant experience in America for an academic journal was struck by this intriguing dissimilarity in our usages of these expressions. She interviewed Nigerian immigrants in the Chicago area in the course of her research.  Even though her interviewees didn’t seem content with their material lot in America, they said they were “not surviving”; that they were “managing.” She was initially dumb-stricken. When she finally figured out that we use “managing” to mean “surviving” and “surviving” to mean “managing,” she entitled her article: “‘We Are Not Surviving, We Are Managing’: the Constitution of a Nigerian Diaspora along the Contours of the Global Economy."

16. “Chicken change.” This means a contemptible, insignificant amount, evidently derived from a distortion of “chicken-feed,” the slang term that means a “trifling amount of money” in Standard English. This expression is used especially in Nigerian Pentecostal churches to encourage bountiful donations to the church. An American by the name of Dr. Larry Martin recalled a Nigerian church service he attended in which the pastor asked his congregation to donate large sums of money and not just “chicken change.”

17.  “To have long legs.” This means to have connections in high places; to be close to people in the corridors of power. This expression, which is clearly a literal translation of the Hausa expression “dogon kafa,” came to Nigerian English by way of Pidgin English. It is widespread enough in educated Nigerian English that one of Wole Soyinka’s characters in the Trials of Brother Jero uses it.

Bose laments that she is denied admission to read medicine at the University of Ibadan even though she made the “cuff-off mark” to deserve being admitted. And Dupe responds: “Oh well, that’s life, especially when you have no long leg. I learnt that Tola was admitted to study pharmacy, although she barely made the cut-off mark for pharmacy at Ife, and A.B.U was her first choice.”

18.  “See or smell pepper.” It means to get a shock. This expression, which is a direct translation from native Nigerian languages, was exclusively used in Nigerian Pidgin English but it now appears copiously in educated Nigerian English.

19.  “To blow grammar.” It means to impress with big words. It’s chiefly used humorously. This expression, which also came to Nigerian English by way of Pidgin English, is widely used even in formal contexts among highly accomplished Nigerians.

In a recent public lecture titled “Anambra and the Road to Dubai,” Professor Charles Soludo, Nigeria’s former Central Bank governor, wrote: “For the University elite, the gown has never met with the town as they derided the ‘illiterate’ traders. The traders on the other hand looked down on the ‘poor’ intellectuals who can only ‘blow grammar’ and take minutes during meetings of kinsfolk but cannot measure up during community fund-raising ceremonies.”

 In Nigerian English, “grammar” usually means “big words,” not the rules that govern correct usage.

20.  “Talk less of.” This is the Nigerian English expression for “let alone” or “much less.” Where a British and American speaker would say, “I can’t remember the title of the book we were supposed to read, let alone the details of the story,” a Nigerian speaker would say, “I can’t remember the title of the book we were supposed to read, talk less of the details of the story.” Sometimes “talkless” is written as a word. The expression probably emerged out of the misrecognition of “much less.”

21. “Over and above.” In especially written Nigerian English, it is common to find the idiom "over and above" used as if it were an intensifier. (An intensifier is a word or expression that has little meaning except to make stronger the meaning it modifies). For instance, it's usual to come across expressions like, "He was promoted over and above me," where "over and above" merely intensifies the sense that someone was favored to our disadvantage in a promotion exercise. But in both American and British English, "over and above" only means "in addition to" or "besides" (example: they made a profit over and above the goodwill they got).

Any time you replace "in addition to" with "over and above" and it doesn't add up, you're probably misusing the idiom— by the standards of American and British English, that is.

22. “Send-forth parties.” In Nigerian English, this means a send-off, that is, an organized expression of goodwill for people who are about to leave us for a new place or for a new venture. This expression, which seems to have originated as a coinage by Nigerian born-again Christians, would certainly make no sense to many Americans and Britons. Its equivalent in standard British and American English is, as I said earlier, “send-off” (note that it is NOT “send-off party” as some Nigerians are wont to say because “send-off” is a noun, not an adjective) or “farewell celebration” or, rarely, “bon voyage.” Americans also call it a “leaving party.”

I guess Nigerians coined the expression “send-forth party” because “send-off” seems   distant, even hostile. The adverb “forth” appears to us to convey a connotation of forward motion, of advancement, while “off” strikes us as suggesting departure with no expectation of return. So we think that to say we send people off creates the impression that we derive perverse pleasure in their departure from us. But linguists would call this reasoning naïve, if not downright ignorant, because the definition of an idiom—which is what this phrase is and which I discussed at the beginning of this piece— is that it is an expression whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the individual words that make it up.

 23. Other popular Nigerian English idioms are “hot drink” to mean “hard drink,” that is, alcoholic beverages or liquor; “of recent” to mean “recently” on the model of “of late;” “spent horse” instead of “spent force” (example: “that politician is now a spent force”); “wash a film” instead of “develop a film.”

Related Articles:
1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
American English or British English?
 Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation

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