"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: March 2014

Sunday, March 30, 2014

12 Most Popular Archaisms in Nigerian English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Archaisms are expressions that have lost currency in contemporary usage. Their use can sometimes be intentional, such as in legal language, literary expressions, religious texts, etc. But they can also be the result of not being at the center of the evolution of a language, which causes one to be blissfully unaware of current trends and shifts in meaning and usage. The latter is responsible for the archaisms that occur in Nigerian English. Find below my pick for the top popular archaisms in Nigerian English:

1. “Bad egg.” This is an obsolete expression that used to me a “bad person” in American and British English. But it is still actively used in Nigerian English, especially in Nigerian media English. I became aware that this expression was outdated when I read an introductory public relations book by a British author called Frank Jefkins in my first year in the university more than 20 years ago. In one of the chapters of the book, which was written in the 1980s, Jefkins observed that Nigerian newspapers still used outdated English expressions that went out of circulation in Britain since the 1950s. “Bad eggs” was one of the examples he gave to illustrate his point.

Nigerian newspapers still refer to bad people as “bad eggs.” I searched for the expression in the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English and didn’t find a single idiomatic usage of it. In all the places “bad egg” appeared, it was used literally to mean an egg that is bad.

 According to the Random House Dictionary, “bad egg” started life as an American English slang expression in the 1850s. It meant “a person who is bad, dishonest, or unreliable; a good-for-nothing [as in] a bad egg who had served several years in prison.” The expression later spread to British English but, as with most slang expressions, died a natural death years later. 

Well, thanks to Nigerian English, “bad egg” has reincarnated and is well and alive— maybe just a little anemic. 

2. “Colonial masters.” Nigerians still call British colonizers “colonial masters,” an oddly outdated expression that perhaps betrays the depth of inferiority that Nigerians still feel before their former colonial overloads. Modern Britons are often taken aback by references to them or their ancestors as “colonial masters.” An Indian lecturer of mine by the name of Zafar Khan who taught me a course called “Language through Literature” at Bayero University, Kano used to tell us that “colonial masters” was his least favorite Nigerian English expression. He said he found it unacceptably self-humiliating, and pointed out that in India, British colonizers were called such names as “colonial brutes,” “colonial conquerors,” “colonial invaders,” or simply “colonizers.” I stopped saying “colonial masters” since then.

American blacks also used to call their white slavers “slave masters.” What is it about black people that makes them call their oppressors “masters”?

3. “Groundnut.”  In his draft Nigerian English Dictionary, Roger Blench observed that “Groundnut is a pan-African Anglophone usage and is probably a calque of French pois de terre, or German Erdnuss.” (For those who don’t know, a calque is a loan translation, that is, the literal translation of an expression from one language to the other.)

 I don’t think Blench’s observation is accurate. “Groundnut” isn’t an exclusively Anglophone African English expression. It actually came to Anglophone Africa by way of British English. I have also found the word in American dictionaries. It’s just that native English speakers no longer use it. They now prefer “peanuts” to “groundnuts.” A search on the databases of the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English showed that “groundnut” only appears in technical usages and in references to African culinary delicacies. 

4.Indian hemp.” Nigerian English speakers use the expression to refer to all kinds of narcotic weeds such as marijuana and hashish. But it’s almost absent in the conversational English of native English speakers. The street names for “Indian hemp” in America are “pot” and “weed.” Interestingly, according to the Random House Dictionary, the expression was initially an Americanism that emerged between 1610 and 1620, but it obviously came to Nigerian English through British English. 

I found only one reference to “Indian hemp” in the British National Corpus and only four in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. All the references appeared in books, not in popular written and spoken English.

5. “Half-caste.” To this day, most Nigerians refer to people of mixed racial parentage, especially black and white parentage, as “half-castes.” This is not only outdated; it is also offensive in native-speaker English varieties. One of the first things I tell newly arrived Nigerian immigrants here in America is to never call biracial people “half-caste” or “mulatto.”  The preferred terms are “biracial” or “mixed.”

6. “Harlot.” This Biblical archaism for “prostitute” is still active in the collective idiolect of Nigerian English speakers. Sometime ago, I had a conversation with a native English speaker who is familiar with Nigerian English. He told me he always found it quaintly amusing when Nigerians refer to prostitutes as “harlots.” For some reason, I thought the word was no longer active in the conversational English of Nigerians, so I told him he was speaking of 1980s Nigeria. In order to resolve our disagreement, we decided to search “harlot Nigeria” on Google. We found very recent references on Nigerian newspaper websites and in several Nigerian online discussion groups. We, in fact, found a recent Nollywood movie titled Pastor and the Harlot. I gave up.

7. “Men of the underworld.” This is the default expression for “criminals” in Nigerian media English. It is one of the expressions that Frank Jefkins (see number 1) identified as obsolete British English expressions that regularly appeared in Nigerian newspapers in the 1980s. It’s still a popular expression in Nigerian media English three decades on.

8. “Master/Mistress.” In Nigerian English, a male school teacher is called a “master” and a female school teacher is called a “mistress.” This is clearly derived from British English where these expressions still enjoy some currency in some places. But they are outdated in all other native English varieties. Mistress is now more popularly used to refer to a woman who has a secret sexual relationship with a married man.

Nigerian English is also gradually abandoning “master” and “mistress” and replacing them with “uncle” (for male teachers) and “aunty” (for female teachers), especially in elementary schools. I don’t know which is worse: quaint archaisms or downright improper usage.

9. “Spinster.” Many Nigerian English speakers still use this word to refer to any unmarried woman. First, that’s a misusage. It properly used to refer to an elderly unmarried woman, also called an “old maid.” In the contemporary English spoken by native speakers, this word is not only obsolete; it is also considered offensive.  Prefer the word “single.” A young unmarried woman is called a bachelorette or bachelor girl in informal American English.

10. Rentage. The modern word is simply rent. Rentage is obsolete.

11. “Trafficate/trafficator.” This word lost currency in British English since the 1960s. The British now call it an “indicator.” Americans call it either a “turn signal” or a “turn indicator.”

13. Vulcanise/vulcaniser. As I wrote in a previous article, “This is an obsolete British English word that is still enjoys currency in Nigerian English. It means a person who repairs tyres [spelled “tires” in American English]. Almost no British person under the age of 30 has any clue what this word means. Americans never had its lexical equivalent because, as one of my American friends observed, ‘we don't do a lot of repairing [of tires]; we just replace [them]).’ But there is no reason to stop using this word because it actually serves a semantic need in Nigeria. Britons have abandoned the word not because they have an alternative for it but because they no longer have individuals who earn a living by repairing punctured tyres. Machines do that now, so ‘vulcaniser’ now refers to a machine that treats rubbers with sulphur.”

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Malaysian Airline Tragedy and Closing of the Nigerian Mind

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In September 2004, Mr. Jeremy Weate, co-owner of Cassava Republic Press in Nigeria, wrote a thoughtful and perceptive essay titled “The closing of the African Mind: A walk through the University of Ibadan.” It was about the depths to which many Nigerians have sunk in the nadir of superstition and backwardness. He concluded that “the biggest threat to any constructive and progressive future for Nigeria is more metaphysical than physical.”

The truth in Weate’s observation painfully endures nearly 10 years on. The vast majority of Nigerians are still stuck in a prescientific mindset. They stand in uncomprehending awe before the littlest natural complexity and quickly take recourse to mythic, superstitious explanations for confounding but knowable phenomena. 

This attitude played out in the recent Malaysian Airline tragedy. Many Nigerians on social media not only proclaimed, with annoyingly cocksure certitude, that the airline had been hijacked by invisible, extra-terrestrial beings; they also used the tragedy to pooh-pooh science, to call attention to what they said were the unraveling of the arrogant, omniscient pretensions of science and technology. Several suggested that the international aviation community should simply give up their search for the airline and come to terms with the limits of science and the omnipotence and inscrutability of “God.”

The backwardness of these thought-processes is mind-boggling for so many reasons. First, the medium they deployed to spew this unreflective ignorance is the product of the same science they ridiculed. The dizzyingly instantaneous, point-to-point communication that the Internet enables across unimaginably vast distances is the product of science, not some backward, superstitious mumbo-jumbo.  

Second, it speaks to the severity of the incuriosity that afflicts the Nigerian mind. You don’t stop searching simply because the object of search seems indiscoverable at the moment. But that is precisely what Nigeria would have done had the airline been a Nigerian airline. Nigerian leaders—and followers— would have called for “prayers” and “surrendered everything to God.” And that would be the end of the story.

Third, that thought-process betrays a lack of compassion that is cloaked in superstitious drivel. The relatives of the victims of the aircraft need closure, and closure can only come from knowing what exactly happened to the airline.

 It is the same insouciant, superstitious mindset that explains why Nigerians give “testimonies” of “God’s mercies” on them for surviving car crashes in which others perished. They imply that God hates the people who die in car accidents.

When it emerged that the science they had scorned had finally succeeded in locating the airline in the Indian Ocean, they went awfully quiet, but a few doubted the authenticity of the discovery. 

This doesn’t surprise me. After all, as Weate noted, “This is a country where the majority of people believe that evil spirits can be transmitted via a mobile phone.” Indeed, this is a country where a “professor,” former university vice chancellor and current minister of power told the nation’s senate that power outages were caused by “witches and demons” and that “If the President deploys me in the power sector, I believe that given my performance at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where I drove out the witches and demons, God will also give me the power to drive out the demons in the power sector.”

A year earlier, a minister of state in the Ministry of Power told a South African delegation that “evil spirits” were responsible for Nigeria’s perpetually capricious power supply.

This is a country where many people still believe that one can become wealthy through the ritual murders of other humans, where deaths, including car accidents, are attributed to witchcraft and sorcery, where the ability to perform cheap magic tricks is invariably associated with the possession of supernatural powers.

Sadly, in Nigeria, superstition and anti-scientific attitudes often take refuge under religion so that an attack on superstition and pre-scientific attitudes is usually mistaken for an attack on religion. But that’s a fallacious association. Both historical and contemporary examples show that religion and science can co-exist. 

For instance, many of the scientific discoveries that define our modern life have foundations in what has been called the Islamic Golden Age, which started from the 8th century to the 11th century. To give just one example, Ibn Al-Haytham (known in Western literature as Alhazen) who lived in what is now Iraq is often credited with inventing the scientific method, leading the BBC to call him the world’s “first true scientist.” He was a devout Muslim.

 In any case, the Malaysians who never gave up in their determination to find out where their aircraft was, who used every scientific help they could get to locate their missing plane, who never surrendered to superstitious nonsense, are Muslims.

And in America, the world’s current leader in scientific research, nearly 80 percent of people say they are religious.

So religion isn’t necessarily synonymous with superstition, nor is science necessarily the anti-thesis of religion. Superstition, belief in witchcraft and sorcery, and a disdain for the scientific method represent the infancy of human reasoning. It’s sad that many Nigerians are still stuck in a prescientific mindset.

Weate was right when he observed that throwing technology and “capacity-building” at Nigerians without first dislodging the pernicious mentality of superstition and ignorance, what he called the “ideological heat-death” of irrational and prescientific beliefs, that afflicts them would amount to nothing.

Nigerians need to imbibe a scientific mindset which, according to The Zeitgeist Movement Official Blog, consists of the following:

1.      “The ability to say, ‘I don’t know,’ leading to what can be termed as an ‘open mind.’
2.      The constant urge to observe and understand the nature of things around us.
3.        The resolve to make all decisions based on facts and evidence.
4.       The ability to let go of old beliefs and accept new explanations when evidence to support them is presented.

I have no doubt that unthinking obsession with supernaturalism and metaphysical claptrap is Nigeria’s, nay Africa’s, biggest stumbling-block to progress.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Q and A on Nigeria’s and Anglophone Africa’s Strange Political Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In this edition of my Q and A series, read why the expressions “cross-carpeting,” “decamping,” “decampees,” and “all protocols duly observed” are nonstandard. Enjoy.

Is it "cross-carpeting" or "carpet-crossing"? I could find neither in my dictionary. Do these words exist? If yes, do they mean “defecting"? Also, is "decamping" as used in Nigerian media correct?

“Carpet-crossing” is certainly not a Standard English expression, but I would hesitate to characterize it as a uniquely Nigerian English expression because it also appears frequently in other varieties of West African English, notably Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian English, and occasionally in Indian English.

There is no doubt that it is derived from the British expression “crossing the floor (of the House),” which occurs when a member of parliament either bucks his political party and votes with members of an opposing party on an issue, or when he entirely switches political affiliation. In the British Parliament, members of the ruling party sit on the right side of the Speaker while members of the opposition sit on the left side. Members of parliament who have a reason to change political allegiance always have to “cross the floor” to join members of the other party.

During Nigeria’s First Republic, a carpet (which is the same thing as a floor since floors are always carpeted)  also separated members of parliament from the ruling party and those from the opposition parties, so changing political party affiliation also required “crossing the carpet” to the other side.

Under Nigeria’s current American-style presidential democracy, the expression is not only outdated; it is also unjustified. Although members of Nigeria’s national and state assemblies still sit according to party affiliations and are separated by a carpet, they are no longer the only players in the democratic game. There is a president, a vice present, governors, and deputy governors who are not members of parliament (who therefore don’t even have a chance to cross any carpet) and who can—and do— change party affiliations.

Now, here is the crux of the issue. In the First Republic, politicians from Nigeria (and other Third World Commonwealth nations) invented the term “cross-carpeting” on the model of the British expression “crossing the floor” because they practiced parliamentary democracy. Now that Nigeria no longer practices British-style parliamentary democracy (which has no provision for a president, vice president, state governors, etc. and where even the prime minister has to be first elected to the parliament from his constituency), what term should we use to refer to change of political party affiliations, especially for elected and appointed officials who are not members of the national and state assemblies? Maybe we should look to America since Nigeria practices American-style presidential democracy.

What we call carpet-crossing in Nigeria would be called “party switching” (sometimes “party switch”) in America. People who switch parties are called “party switchers.” But Americans also have the expression “crossing the aisle” for the act of members of Congress voting against the official position of their political parties. It is used only for members of Congress and does not refer to the act of changing political parties.

Perhaps Nigerian English can retain “cross-carpeting” to describe the act of members of the national and state assemblies voting against party lines and use “party switching” or defection for the act of changing political party affiliation.

Of course, other countries have different names for party switching. In New Zealand, for instance, it’s called “party-hopping” or “waka-jumping.” I know “waka-jumping” sounds a lot like Nigerian Pidgin English where “waka” means “walk away,” but it’s actually derived from Maori, an aboriginal, Polynesian language in New Zealand. In Maori, “waka” means a boat. So the Standard English rendering of “waka-jumping” would be “jumping ship,” which is what switching political parties entails—figuratively, that is.

South Africans call party switching “floor-crossing” or “crosstitution.” Crosstitution is a blend of “crossing” and “prostitution,” implying that elected officials who switch political parties are political prostitutes.

You asked if the tendency for the Nigerian media to use “decamp” to mean party switching is standard usage. No, it’s not. So is “decampee.”

In everyday Standard English, “decamp” means to abscond, to run away, to leave a place suddenly or secretly, often taking something along, as in: “The accountant decamped with the cash from the safe." Decamp has other meanings, but it is never used by native English speakers to refer to changing political parties.

 “Decampee” does not exist in any Standard English dictionary. It’s purely the invention of Nigerian journalists. As I wrote earlier, the American English expression for people who defect to another political party is “party switchers.” They are also called “defectors,” although the word is primarily used of a person who abandons military duty.

A friend of mine says it is grammatically wrong for one to say "all protocols duly observed" when called upon to deliver a formal speech. Is this true? If yes, what is the correct alternative?

It isn’t just grammatically wrong; it’s also unidiomatic, ungainly, purposeless and unnatural to native English speakers at least in Britain, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. (I recently discovered that Caribbean blacks—Jamaicans, Trinidadians, etc.—who are technically native English have borrowed this expression from African English. Given that the expression is used all over Anglophone Africa and has now crossed over to the historic black diaspora it probably qualifies to be called a global Black English expression.

 First, let’s look at the grammaticality of the expression. It’s incomplete. A grammatically correct and complete rendering of the expression would be “All protocols have been duly observed.”

But it is not a fixed phrase that enjoys currency outside Africa and the Caribbean Islands. A Kenyan writer by the name of Caroline Nderitu-Benjamin captured it well in an August 22, 2012 article when she wrote: “[The expression] is clearly a lie. In essence you have NOT observed all protocols. It is just a claim that the necessarily rules of decorum have been observed but we all know protocol was overlooked altogether. Consider this, if you had been asked to pass a vote of thanks, would you thank one or two people and then state ‘All thanks given’?

“There are other ways to observe protocol without having to mention each and every dignitary present. One way is clustering: You can use a general phrase to address all that fall within a certain category – honourable delegates, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, your excellencies, my Lords etc. That way due diligence is paid.

“It is a home-grown expression, unrecognised by the rest of the world. Other than Kenyans, Nigerians, Ugandans and some South Africans who have become accustomed to hearing this, the expression remains totally alien to the rest of the world. Your audience will be at a loss as to what you mean; and as to why you have opted for that ‘short-cut.’

“It is not necessary to use that expression when protocol has indeed been observed. At times the speaker does indeed take his or her time to mention the dignitaries in the audience in order of precedence but spoils it by concluding the list with “all protocols observed.” If protocol has indeed been observed then that will be apparent to the audience and therefore redundant to include that out-of-place phrase. A note from David FGM (communication expert):  "Ladies and Gentlemen, all protocols observed". Thus the phrase means something like: "You know who you all are, just take it as read that I have listed you as correct protocol dictates, OK?"

I couldn’t have said it better.

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