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12 Popular Misusages in Nigerian English (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. See 12 Popular Misusages in Nigerian English (I) for numbers 1 through 4 5. “Hotel.” Nigerian Englis...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

See 12 Popular Misusages in Nigerian English (I) for numbers 1 through 4

5. “Hotel.” Nigerian English speakers, especially those with low- or mid-level proficiency, habitually interchange “hotel” with “brothel” both because “hotel” and “brothel” kind of sound alike and because, well, many Nigerian hotels are glorified brothels. But a hotel is a building that provides temporary accommodation to travelers while a brothel is a house of prostitution. A non-Nigerian lady once told me that she caused a stir among her Nigerian hosts when she said she had stayed in a hotel for days during a previous visit.

6. “Herbalist.” In Nigerian English an herbalist is a witch doctor, a practitioner of black magic, and sometimes a ritual murderer or an enabler of ritual murder. That is not what the word means in Standard English. An herbalist, also called an “herb doctor,” is a therapist who heals sicknesses through the use of herbs. He practices “herbalism.”

 I consulted several dictionaries to see if any of them has entry for a meaning of an herbalist that even remotely comes close to how most Nigerians understand it. Here is the result: Webster's Unabridged defines herbalist as a person whose life is “dedicated to the economic or medicinal uses of plants.” Webster's New International Dictionary defines it as someone who is “skilled in the harvesting and collection of medicinal plants.” The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as someone who is “trained or skilled in the therapeutic use of medicinal plants.” Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged defines it as a person “who grows, collects, sells, or specializes in the use of herbs, especially medicinal herbs.” All the dictionaries also point out that botanists used to be called herbalists.

 As the reader can see, unlike in Nigeria, there is no negative connotation associated with “herbalist” in Standard English. An herbalist is not the same thing as a babalawo.

7. “Offer.” The way Nigerians use this word in an educational context mystifies me to no end. Nigerian university and high school students often say they “offer” a course where other English users would say they “take” a course. For instance, in response to my Weekly Trust column deploring the discontinuation of the teaching of history in Nigerian secondary schools, someone wrote to tell me that he was the only one in his class who “offered history.” It had been a while since I heard someone say or write that, so I was initially puzzled. It didn’t take long, though, to realize that he meant he was the only one in his class who “took history” as a subject; others chose government. 

This popular misuse of “offer” in Nigerian English has real consequences for mutual intelligibility in international communication. In my December 18, 2011 column titled “Top Hilarious Differences between American and Nigerian English,” I recounted the story of a Nigerian who “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.”

 So the school “offers” the course, the teacher “teaches” it, and the student “takes” it. A student can’t offer a course.

8. “Local.” This is invariably a bad word in Nigerian English. It is often used in place of “inferior,” “uncivilized,” “crude,” “insular,” “backward,” “substandard,” etc.  But that’s not the Standard English meaning of the word. In Britain, America, Australia and all places where English is spoken, “local” simply means belonging to a nearby place. When used as a noun it can mean a person who lives nearby. There is not the slightest whiff of inferiority in the word in all varieties of English except in Nigerian (and perhaps Ghanaian) English. 

Here is what Professor David Jowitt wrote about this in his Nigerian English Usage: An Introduction: “…‘local’ [in Nigerian English] is synonymous with a range of other adjectives, according to context: ‘parochial’, ‘narrow-minded’, ‘primitive’….By extension again, however, almost anything can be described as ‘local’: a house, a school, a piece of furniture, an agricultural implement. In all these cases the use of ‘local’ imputes inferiority to the object so described. In [Standard British English], on the other hand, ‘local’ does not have connotations of imputed inferiority; and a common use of the word is in attributed position preceded by ‘the’, e.g. ‘the local priest (=the priest serving a limited area…).”

Let me give a recent example to illustrate the widespread misunderstanding of the word “local” in Nigerian English. In a January 30, 2012 news report about the death of the wife of Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police, the New York-based Sahara Reporters wrote: “Hajia Maryam Abubakar died of cancer in a local clinic in Kano.”

Several commenters berated Sahara Reporters for using the word “local” to qualify the clinic where the IGP’s wife died. Others thought the woman would have survived if she had been taken to a “standard” or “better” hospital instead of a “local” one. I will republish just two representative samples: “What a report!! What has local clinic got to do with it? Are you mocking the IG, even at the loss of his wife? How wicked can you be? When did Nigerians descend to this level?” “Why a local clinic? What’s d Acting IG doing? Her life would have been saved if she's in a better hospital.”

By contrast, Nigerians understand the word “international” to mean “of high quality.” That is why almost every private primary and secondary school in Nigerian urban centers has “international” in its name. My first daughter used to attend a school called “Unity International School” in Abuja, although there is not a single non-Nigerian in the school. In Standard English “international” means involving at least two or more nations.

9. “Machine.” This is often used in popular Nigerian English as a substitute for “motorcycle.” There is nothing in the Standard English meaning of “machine” that implies that it can be used exclusively to refer to a motorcycle. 

10. “Reply.” Nigerians almost always use this word without the preposition “to.” During a training I was invited to give reporters and editors in Nigeria last December, I asked who could identify what was wrong with this headline that appeared in almost all Nigerian newspapers: “Jonathan replies Obasanjo.” Nobody did. When I pointed out that it should be “Jonathan replies to Obasanjo” the reporters and editors looked quizzically at me.

11. “South -South.” This phrase was invented in the 1990s by Nigeria’s Second Republic Vice President Alex Ekeweme to refer to Nigeria’s Deep South. It is now fossilized in the political lexicon of Nigerian English, and is used both as a noun and as an adjective, as in “I come from the South-South,” “South-South governors met yesterday,” etc. That is a nonstandard, peculiarly Nigerian usage. 

In the English language there are four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west), four ordinal directions (northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest), and eight secondary inter-cardinal directions, which are hardly ever used. North-central and south-central are also commonly used directional terminologies, especially in the United States, even though they are not part of the cardinal, ordinal, or secondary inter-cardinal directions.

There is no directional name called “South-south” in the English language.

But the problem with the Nigerian usage of “South-south” isn’t merely that English speakers from other nations don’t recognize it as a directional point; it is also that the phrase is already a standard attributive phrase in international politics to refer to the friendly relations between Third World countries. It regularly appears in expressions like “South-South Cooperation,” “South-South learning,” “South-South migration, etc. 

The phrase arose from the division of the world into the “global north” (which refers to the industrialized nations of Europe, America and East Asia) and the “global south” (which refers to the developing nations of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and parts of Asia). So cooperation between people in the global south, say between Nigeria and Venezuela, is called “south-south cooperation.”

If I were to advise Nigerian policy makers, who want to institutionalize the six geo-political zones in the country, I would encourage them to change “south-south” to “south-central.”

12. “Sufferness.” There is no such word in the English language; it should be “suffering.”

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