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Nigeria’s Unique Telephonic Vocabulary

By Farooq A. Kperogi With the exponential growth and flowering of mobile telephony in Nigeria, a corpus of uniquely Nigerian telephon...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

With the exponential growth and flowering of mobile telephony in Nigeria, a corpus of uniquely Nigerian telephonic phraseology is emerging. What follows is not intended to be understood as grammatical errors. A word or phrase isn’t a grammatical error simply because its usage deviates from the norms of native-speaker varieties. On the contrary, it may indicate linguistic creativity. But it helps to know the communicative limitations of uniquely local phrases for international communication.

1. “Toss” or “toos.” This is Nigerian English’s first telephonic vocabulary. It is now outdated. It’s short for “temporarily out of service”— a voice prompt that Nigeria’s notoriously incompetent state-run NITEL (Nigerian Telecommunications) invented for telephone lines that were suspended for failure to pay monthly service bills. Although the initials of the words that make up the phrase are “toos,” Nigerians preferred “toss,” perhaps because it sounded more English than “toos.” Or maybe it was because a word with that spelling already exists in the English language. Nigerians later invented creative phrases around the term, such as “my line is on toss,” “my line has been tossed,” etc. Interestingly, one of the meanings of “toss” in English is to throw or cast away, which is somewhat similar in effect to what happens when a phone subscriber’s line is suspended.

2. “Flash.” I have written several articles on this word which, in Nigerian English, means to drop a call intentionally before the intended recipient picks it up. The closest approximation of this term in native varieties of English, especially in American English, is “missed call,” that is, intentionally dropped calls.
In the Third World, intentionally missed calls are used to communicate several messages. In Nigeria, for instance, it can mean “I have no minutes in my phone; please call me back,” or “Hi. This is just to let you know I’m thinking about you,” or “I’m ready. Come pick me up.” It can also function as a code between people, such as when somebody says, “When I ‘flash’ you, it means he is here.” 

In the Philippines, “flashing” is called “miskol.” It’s formed from “missed call” and functions both as a noun and as a verb (as in: “That was a miskol”; “I will miskol you”). It won the “word of the year” in the country in 2007. 

In England and Australia it’s called “prank,” (as in: “I don’t have your phone number; can you prank me?” Or “That wasn’t a real call; it was a prank”). In the U.S. it’s called “drop call” (used both as a verb and as a noun, although it’s a rare urban slang term). In Rwanda it’s called a “beep,” and it’s also used both as a verb and as a noun. See my previous articles titled “In Defense of Flashing and other Nigerianisms” and “Top Hilarious Differences between American and Nigerian English” for other examples.

3. “Handset.” This is the Nigerian English word for what speakers of the dominant varieties of English simply call a phone. In popular usage in both the US and the UK, a handset doesn’t refer to a mobile phone receiver; it usually refers to the detachable part of a landline telephone that is held up to speak into and listen to. Americans also call it “French telephone.” In British and American English, “handset” can also refer to a handheld controller for any piece of electronic equipment such as a remote control for TV, a walkie-talkie, or a video recorder.
This is what native speakers call a "handset"
 I recall reading former Nigerian presidential spokesman Segun Adeniyi’s experience in America about this. He wrote that no one understood him when he said he had misplaced his “handset.” After a lot of explanation, he said, someone vaguely understood what he meant and asked, “you mean your phone?” To be sure, technically, a mobile phone receiver is also a handset; it’s just that native speakers of English hardly call it by that name in informal, conversational contexts.

4. “Call off.” Many Nigerians use this phrase where speakers of British and American English would use “hang up.” This arises from a very literal understanding of the phrase: When you dial people’s numbers, you call them, and when you cut the call you “call off.” But “call off” is an idiom and idioms, by definition, are expressions whose meanings cannot be inferred from the meanings of the individual words that make them up. “Call off” chiefly means to cancel something altogether or to postpone it indefinitely. Example: The Academic Staff Union of Universities will call off its strike tomorrow. “Call of” has no connection with telephony, but Femi Kusa, a former Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian, wrote in a recent article that a reporter called him and “called off.”

5. “Engaged.” This word for what Americans call “busy” isn’t uniquely Nigerian. It is the preferred British English word to indicate that a telephone line is unavailable because it is already in use. Thus, “engaged tone” or “engaged signal” is the sound you get when you dial a number that is “engaged.” The first time I told an American that I called his number and it was “engaged” there was a communication breakdown. If I had said it was “busy” or that I got a “busy tone” he would have understood me immediately.

6. “Network problems.” This is the phrase Nigerians use when there is a high incidence of what native English speakers call “dropped calls.” Where Americans and Britons would say “the signal (strength) is weak,” or “reception is poor,” or they are “experiencing access failure,” Nigerians say “the network is poor” or “there are network problems.” Interestingly, “network problems” is now becoming a catch-all phrase for all kinds of technological failures outside of telephony. For example, a friend recently told me he didn’t respond to my email on time because of “network problems” with his Internet!  Synonymous expressions for “network problems” are “service problems” or simply “service,” especially in Nigerian Pidgin English. 

7. “Interconnectivity.” This is not an everyday word in native varieties of English, but it is in contemporary Nigerian English. It is used to denote poor signal exchange between Nigeria’s wireless phone service providers. Even uneducated Nigerians habitually talk about “interconnectivity problems” between, for instance, MTN and Glo. That word would make no sense to most people in the UK and the US for three reasons: First, the idea that two phone companies can’t exchange signals is beyond their experiential repertoire. Second, that word is too big, too stilted, and too pretentious for informal, conversational purposes. Third, the word is never used in connection with telephony. But I think it speaks to the linguistic creativity of Nigerians that they have “hijacked” this word and “force-fed” it with extraneous semantic properties in the service of expressing a phenomenon that is unique to their telephonic experiences. There is absolutely no reason to discourage its use in this context.

8. “Killer numbers.” From about the midpoint of 2011, maybe earlier, several hoaxes emerged in Nigeria that claimed that answering certain mysterious phone numbers could result in the instant death or paralysis of the receiver. The Nigerian press dubbed such numbers “killer numbers.” The phrase is now integrated into the everyday speech of a broad spectrum of superstitious Nigerians because the hoaxes have endured to this day. Native speakers of English will find this phrase puzzlingly incomprehensible.

 Related Articles:
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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

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