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Top Hilarious Differences between American and Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. This was serialized for two weeks in my Sunday Trust column. That's why it's unusually long.   ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

This was serialized for two weeks in my Sunday Trust column. That's why it's unusually long.
I could have titled this piece “Top Hilarious Differences between British English and American English” because Nigerian English is, after all, a progeny of British English, with which it still shares many structural, grammatical, and lexical characteristics. However, as the examples below illustrate—and as I have pointed out in several of my writings—Nigerian English has significantly weaned itself from British English and has acquired some distinctive stylistic and lexical imprints that mark it out as a classifiable national variety. 

In what follows, I identify the top humorous differences between the English spoken and written in Nigeria and in the United States.

1. “You’re so silly!” In Nigerian English—which is, of course, derived from Standard British English—this phrase is decidedly an insult. In British English “silly” is chiefly an adjective of disesteem. It usually denotes and connotes stupidity or foolishness. Nigerian English inherited this sense of the term.

 Sometime in 2005 when I told my intercultural communication students at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, about cultures in southern Nigeria where prospective brides go to “fattening rooms” for months to grow “flesh in the right places” so that they would be desirable to their husbands, they thought I was overstretching the bounds of the truth. One of them asked if I was “just being silly.”

Silly? My pride was violently wounded. However, I realized that nobody was shocked by the unwarranted “insult.” That warned me to restrain my emotions. It turned out that in American demotic speech, to be silly means to be willfully and affectionately funny or playful. So the student just wanted to know if I was merely kidding because she didn’t imagine that there were cultures anywhere in the world where “fat” people are not vilified. 

An African-American professor friend of mine who teaches political science at the University of Ohio had a reverse experience in Ghana. While on a one-year sabbatical at the University of Ghana in Legon, a male professor almost physically assaulted her because she told him he was “so silly.” She, of course, meant that he was affectionately funny. “I never used ‘silly’ again for the rest of my stay there,” she told me.

I went to elementary school with children of white American Baptist missionaries who habitually called their parents “silly” and the parents would smile and even hug them. We used to be mortified. We thought Americans had no culture of respect for their parents.

To be sure, the notion of silliness as foolishness also exists in American English, but it co-habits with the denotation of lighthearted joviality. Americans can often tell the difference between the two meanings of the word through context and nonverbal cues. In American English “silly” is also used as a noun to describe misbehaving children, as in: “Don’t be a silly!” But when it is used as a noun in British English, usually as a form of address, it means a foolish person, as in: Come on, sillies!”

Interestingly, according to etymologists, when “silly” first appeared in the English language, it was written as “seely” and meant fortunate or happy. Isn’t it fortunate that the notions of “silly” as stupid and jovial still happily co-exist in American English?

2. “It’s a shame.” As an expression, “it’s a shame” simply means “it’s regrettable” or “it’s unfortunate.” In the US and the UK, the phrase is used both with a tone of approving empathy and of disapproval, but mostly the former. Examples: “It’s a shame your mother died when you needed her most”; “It’s a shame you missed getting a First Class degree by only a few points”; “It’s a shame students of English can’t write good English these days,” etc. 

In Nigeria, the expression is exclusively disapproving. That’s because Nigerians isolate the meaning of the word “shame” from the expression and understand the entire phrase to mean disgrace, dishonor, or embarrassment. The preferred expression in Nigerian English (which is fortunately also present in all other varieties of English) to express approving regret is “it’s a pity.”

 If you’re a Nigerian and you’re reading this, please don’t fight an American or a Briton who says, for instance, “It’s a shame that your country is associated with Internet scams.” The person could actually be saying that he thinks that Nigeria’s reputation as a nation of scammers is undeserved! In both British and American English, the idiom that unequivocally expresses the sense that one should feel embarrassed or ashamed over something is “for shame!” as in: “That’s a terrible thing to say to your parents. For shame!”
3. “You’re so homely.” An American woman I met recently told me she stopped communicating with her Nigerian online lover because he described her as “homely.” She said that was the rudest, meanest, unkindest, and most gratuitous verbal violence she had ever suffered in her life. In American English “homely” means “ugly.” But in Nigerian English it is used of a woman to mean she is warm, friendly, responsible, decent, and worthy of being kept as a wife. This meaning is derived from the (earlier) British sense of the word. The American lady was rueful after she learned that her friend was actually complimenting her.

4. “Are you mad or something?” This question got my undergraduate thesis adviser, the late Professor Mike Egbon, to break up with his first American girlfriend when he was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The lady wanted to find out if he was angry (which is what “mad” means in American English), but in British (and Nigerian) English “mad” means insane, crazy. My professor understood his American girlfriend as calling him a mentally disturbed person. So he got REALLY “mad” and broke up with her! The lady was flummoxed. When she tried to explain what she meant, my professor said he rebuffed her. A few years later, he realized his error, by which time the woman had moved on.

Curiously, as Ipointed out in previous write-ups, the American usage of “mad” to mean “angry” is faithful to the original meaning of the term up until the late nineteenth century.

5. “Let me take my drugs.” In American English the default meaning of “drugs” is a substance used as a narcotic. In Nigerian English, however, it’s a synonym for medicine or, as Americans now prefer to say, medication. To be sure, both senses of the term exist in both varieties. That’s why, for instance, Nigeria’s anti-narcotic agency is called the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency and why Americans call chemists (or, if you will, pharmacies) “drugstores” and call pharmacists “druggists.”

Early this year, I read of a Nigerian traveler to America who was detained at the airport for hours because she told Custom and Immigration officers that the traditional African herbs she had in her checked-in luggage were “drugs” for her malaria. The “malaria” bit escaped the officers. They were unnerved by what they thought was her forthrightness. After putting the herbs through every imaginable crucible to determine what kind of “drugs” they were and finding that they tested negative, one of the officers had the good sense to pause and wonder if by “drugs” the Nigerian meant “medicines.” It was then they remembered the bit about “malaria” and thought it unlikely that anyone would treat malaria with narcotics. That was how she got her freedom from detention.

My daughter, whose linguistic idiosyncrasies have now become fully American, also recently jumped out of her chair when I said I was going to the pharmacy to buy drugs for her cold. She had just had a “drugs-free day” in her school where she learned about the deleterious consequences of drug use. So she protested, “Daddy, NO WAY will I take drugs for my cold! Drugs are bad!!” I smiled knowingly and told her I meant “medicines.”
6. “I’ll knock you up.” In British and Nigerian English this phrase literally means you’ll knock on somebody’s door. In American English, however, it’s a colloquial expression for “I will get you pregnant”! So don’t say you’ll “knock up” an American woman who isn’t your wife. You could end up in jail for attempted rape!

7. “Girlfriend.” In Nigerian English, “girlfriend” only means a woman with whom a man is romantically involved. But it means more than that in American English. It can also mean a woman’s female friend. The first time an American woman told me she would be meeting with her “girlfriend,” I thought she was an in-your-face lesbian. So I told her she didn’t need to be that direct. She then explained that she merely meant her female friend. I wonder why American men don’t also call their male friends their “boyfriends.”
American women also use “girlfriend” as a form of address when talking to women who are not necessarily their friends, as in: “look here, girlfriend!” I must mention that contemporary British English also uses “girlfriend” to mean a woman’s female friend. My daughter still says “Ewwww!” when her friends call her “girlfriend.”

8. “Offer a course.” In Nigerian English, students, not schools, “offer” courses. A Nigerian reader of my columns recently wrote to tell me that an American university admissions officer was bewildered when she told him she wanted to “offer a course in petroleum engineering”! I told her in America—and in Britain—students don’t offer courses; only schools do. To offer is to make available. Students can’t make courses available in schools; they can only take or enroll in courses that schools offer.

A slightly related but by no means humorous usage peculiarity is the tendency for Nigerian English speakers to “write” tests or exams where Americans “take” them, or for Nigerians to “run a course” where other English speakers are “enrolled in a course.” (I should point out that students in India, Pakistan, Ghana and other Commonwealth countries also “write,” not “take,” tests and exams, indicating that this usage has British origins or influence). 

9.  “You’re welcome” vs. “welcome.” In American English—and increasingly in British English—the expression “you’re welcome” functions only as a polite response to the expression of gratitude through the phrase “thank you.” In other words, Americans only say “you’re welcome” when someone says “thank you” to them. But Nigerian English speakers say “you’re welcome” where a simple “welcome” would do. An American friend of mine once told me how bemused she was when everyone in Lagos said “you’re welcome, madam” to her upon being introduced to them. “I didn’t say ‘thank you’ to anybody. Why were they saying ‘you’re welcome’ to me?” she recalled.

After the “you’re-welcome-madam” pleasantries became unbearably omnipresent, she quickly figured out that it’s the Nigerian English way of saying “welcome ma’am.” It should be noted that British grammarians initially sneered at the expression “you’re welcome” in response to “thank you.” They preferred the cold, curt, detached “don’t mention it” or “think nothing of it.” Now “you’re welcome” is in common use in British English.

10. “We are managing”/ “we are surviving.” As I wrote in a previous article, in Nigerian English, “managing” means struggling to make ends meet, i.e., not doing well. Example: "My brother, the country is hard. I am just managing.” In American and British English, however, to be managing is to be successful. So where Nigerians would say they are “managing,” Americans and Britons would say they are “just surviving.” In Nigerian English, however, to be surviving is to overcome, to be in control.

An American researcher by the name of Rachel Reynolds who wrote about the Nigerian immigrant experience in America for an academic journal was struck by this intriguing dissimilarity in our usage 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 Nigerians use “managing” to mean “surviving” and “surviving” to mean “managing,” she titled her article: “‘We Are Not Surviving, We Are Managing’: the Constitution of a Nigerian Diaspora along the Contours of the Global Economy."

11. “I will flash you.” This is my favorite Nigerianism. Every Nigerian knows “flashing” to mean a split-second call to another person’s phone with no intention to have a phone conversation. It’s usually a subtle way to say, “I have no units in my phone; please call me back” If the “flashing” takes place in the presence of the recipient, it usually implies: “that’s my number; store it.” 

Although “flash” has a multiplicity of meanings in American English (see my previous article titled “In Defense of ‘Flashing’ and Other Nigerianisms”) the first thing that comes to the minds of American—and British—speakers of English when you say you will “flash” them is that you will briefly expose your naked body or genitals to them in public! That was precisely what happened to a white American Baptist missionary friend of mine by the name of John Dunaway who was born in my hometown in the early 1950s and who, sadly, died last year. (I wrote about him in my Weekly Trust column on May 1, 2010). 

When he visited Nigeria in 2008, a long-lost friend of his asked for his Nigerian phone number. After getting the number, the friend said, “hold on—let me flash you.” My friend said he ran for cover as fast as he could. “I didn’t want to see the naked body of an old man!” he recalled. He later learned from reading one of my articles in 2007 that in Nigeria “flashing” doesn’t mean indecent exposure. In fact, that sense of the word is completely non-existent in Nigerian English.

12: “I will ring you up.” This expression became a part of Nigerians’ demotic speech since the late 1990s when mobile phones became the single most important instruments of communication. When people don’t “flash you,” they “ring you up.” Of course, the expression came into Nigerian English by way of British English where it also means to make a telephone call to somebody. However, in American English, “ring (you) up” has a completely different meaning. It means to check out purchased items on a cash register. 

When you buy things in American stores, the cashiers “ring up” what you buy and tell you how much you need to pay for your purchases. In my first few months here, I recall telling an American friend of mine that I would "ring him up.” His response threw me off balance. “When did you become a cashier? In what shop do you work?” he asked.

13. “I passed out.” Nigerians “pass out” from secondary schools. The British only “pass out” from military colleges, not secondary schools. In both senses of the term, nonetheless, “pass out” is used to mean “graduate” from some kind of school. But when Americans “pass out” they always need to be resuscitated by a doctor. As you’ve probably guessed (if you didn’t already know, that is), the only meaning of “pass out” known to American English is to “faint.” This sense of the term is completely absent in Nigerian English, but it’s present in British English.

 Related Articles:
1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English
2. Why is "Sentiment" Such a Bad Word in Nigeria?
3. Ambassador Aminchi's Impossible Grammatical Logic
4. 10 Most Annoying Nigerian Media English Expressions
5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
6. Adverbial and Adjectival Abuse in Nigerian English
7. In Defense of "Flashing" and Other Nigerianisms
8. Weird Words We're Wedded to in Nigerian English
9. American English or British English?
10. Hypercorrection in Nigerian English
11. Nigerianisms, Americanisms, Briticisms and Communication Breakdown
12. Top 10 Irritating Errors in American English
13. Nigerian Editors Killing Macebuh Twice with Bad Grammar
14. On "Metaphors" and "Puns" in Nigerian English
15. Common Errors of Pluralization in Nigerian English
16. Q & A About Common Grammatical Problems
17. Semantic Change and the Politics of English Pronunciation

1 comment

  1. Thanks for the info about the cultures of the Ibos and Yorubas of Southern Nigerian. My ex-boyfriend who is yoruba always emphasized 'gaining weight'. I now have an ibo friend, I wish I have access to such fattening room



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