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My Favorite Exclamatory Expressions in Nigerian English (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D Continued from last week ( read part one here ) 11. “May God punish you!” This maledictory exclamation i...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D

Continued from last week (read part one here)

11. “May God punish you!” This maledictory exclamation in Nigerian English can take other forms, such as “My God punish you and your entire family!” “God punish your father and your whole generation!” or simply “God punish you!” Some Nigerian Christians use “Holy Ghost Fire” in place of “God” in these curses, which are used in moments of extreme anger. 

I have never heard anyone use these expressions in America in the nearly one decade that I’ve lived here. Professor David Jowitt, in his widely acclaimed Nigerian English: An Introduction, also attests that the expression is absent in modern British English, and suggests that this may indicate that “Nigeria is more religious than modern Britain.” That is certainly the case.

But America is far from being the post-religious society that much of Western Europe is. In fact, one might even say America cherishes outward display of religiosity in almost the same way that Nigerians do, yet Americans don’t invoke God in maledictory exclamations. “Goddam” or “Goddamn,” which appears to be equivalent to “God punish you,” is actually now just an informal expletive to intensify meaning, as in “He is goddamn good at what he does,” or “He is a goddam hypocrite.”

Modern native English exclamations that have a tinge of religiosity in them are often irreverent, even blasphemous, and are avoided in polite company. Expressions such as “Holy Cow!” “Holy shit!” “Jeez!” “Jesus “f**king Christ!” etc. function primarily to express surprise, and hurt the sensibilities of many observant Christians.

 It’s hard to tell where the Nigerian “God punish you!” emanated from. There doesn’t seem to be any record of its use at any point in British English, and it doesn’t strike me as a direct translation from any major Nigerian language. Even the Hausa “Allah tsine…!” isn’t an exact lexical or idiomatic equivalent of “May God punish you.”

12. “Na wa o!” This is certainly a Nigerian Pidgin English expression, but many Nigerians utter it to express surprise even when they speak Standard English. The expression isn’t easy to translate into English, but close approximations would be “Wow! Just wow!!” “That’s terrible!” “Unbelievable!”

13. “It’s not easy o!” Despite what its lexical constituents might suggest, this expression isn’t necessarily a statement on the ease or difficulty of a task (although it sometimes is). In Nigerian English it can be used to express the sense that one has resigned oneself to disappointment, or that something is really surprising, among other idiosyncratic meanings. Yoruba people have even vernacularized the expression to “ko easy rara.”

14. “You don’t mean it!” Nigerians use this expression to express disbelief—in almost the same way that Americans use “get out of here!” Native English speakers understand “you don’t mean it” literally, that is, that there is a disjunction between what you’re saying and what you actually mean. Nigerians, on the other hand, use it figuratively to mean “this is unbelievable; this beggars belief.”

So, many Nigerians say “you don’t meant it!” to indicate that they are truly surprised by what they’d just heard. In similar contexts, as I said earlier, Americans informally say “Get out of here!” They are not, by any means, commanding you to get lost, although when the context changes, it can mean that.

Last summer I participated in the training of some Nigerian high court judges here in Atlanta, and one judge told me he was utterly flummoxed when an American lady told him to “get out of here!” He was mystified, he said, because the lady who told him “to get out of here!” didn’t betray any emotions of anger and was, in fact, interested in hearing more of what he had to say. I asked him if he’d narrated a hard-to-believe but true story and he answered in the affirmative. I then explained that “get out of here!” is an informal expression that Americans sometimes use to express disbelief—the same way Nigerians say “you don’t mean it!” My explanation saved his relationship with the American lady. 

Another (American) expression used to express incredulity that non-native speakers may find puzzling is: “get out of town!”

15. “What’s there?” This means “it’s no big deal!” or, as Americans now say informally, “it’s no biggie.” In Nigerian Pidgin English, the expression is rendered as “wetin dey there?” My guess is that the expression is a direct translation from the Hausa “me a ciki?” which literally translates as “what’s inside?” but which actually means “what’s the big deal in it?” Perhaps other Nigerian languages have equivalent expressions.

16. “Wonderful!” Roger Blench, in his draft dictionary of Nigerian English, writes that “wonderful!” is an exclamation “used for a surprising event of any type” and add puzzlingly that “on hearing of the death of a close relative it would be appropriate to say ‘Wonderful!’” He said this bizarre use of “wonderful!” is derived from the Hausa “mamaki!” which is used to express incredulity.

I must confess that I am not familiar with that usage in Nigerian English. In fact, I am dubious of the accuracy of Blench’s claim that speakers of English in northern Nigeria use “wonderful!” to express surprise of any kind, including the death of a close relative. I went to university in Kano for four years, lived in Katsina for a year, worked in Kaduna for many years, and continue to relate very closely with native Hausa speakers. Not once have I heard anyone say “wonderful!” upon being told of the death of a close relative. Maybe I didn’t go to the right places—or don’t relate with the right people. I’d be delighted if someone can email me to confirm or disprove this. What I do know for a fact is that “wonderful!” is used in Nigerian English to express hearty delight.

17. “Yes now!” or “Yes o!” This expression is used for the intensification of approval or to indicate the obviousness of an answer.

18. “You’re highly welcome!” Unlike in Standard English where “you’re welcome” is the response you give when people say “thank you” to you, in Nigerian English “you’re (highly) welcome!” is used to signify an intensified form of “welcome!” As I’ve written in previous articles, this confuses native speakers a lot.

19. “Take (your) time o!” This exclamatory expression is used as a stern, threatening warning, especially during quarrels. It means be warned, be careful or risk unsavory consequences. No other variety of English in the world—at least to my knowledge—understands and uses the expression the way Nigerians do. In Standard English “take your time” simply means don’t be in a hurry.

20. “Or whatever you call yourself!” When a Nigerian says or writes your name and adds “or whatever you call yourself,” you better “take your time o!” It means he is really upset with you. Any time I write hard-hitting political commentaries that ruffle big feathers, I get emails from paid hacks that read something like this: “Farooq, or whatever you call yourself, you’re a big fool to talk about our president like that! May God punish you and your entire goro-chewing people for that nonsense article!”

 These expressions crack me up big time every time I read them. There was a time I laughed so boisterously after reading an even more hilarious version of these insults directed at me that I literally fell off my chair! I kid you not.


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