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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 inte...

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 I became aware that this expression was outdated when I read an introductory public relations book by a British author called Frank Jefkins in my first year in the university more than 20 years ago.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one of the chapters of the book, which was written in the 1980s, Jefkins observed that Nigerian newspapers still used outdated English expressions that went out of circulation in Britain since the 1950s.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 Nigerians still call British colonizers “colonial masters,” an oddly outdated expression that perhaps betrays the depth of inferiority that Nigerians still feel before their former colonial overloads.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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