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Q and A on Grammar of the Nigerian Constitution, Politicians and Word Formation

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.   In this week’s Q and A find out how the Nigerian constitution has misused the word “impeachment” in at ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

 In this week’s Q and A find out how the Nigerian constitution has misused the word “impeachment” in at least two places. Also find out the idiomaticity of President Jonathan’s recent use of the expression “I don’t sleep with both eyes closed.” If you’re curious about what “verbing” means and how it enriches the English language, you’ll find the answer here as well. Enjoy.

Could you please help to explain the meaning of the word 'impeach'? My friend argued that it means removing a political office holder from office as most Nigerian newspapers use it, but I understand it to mean to accuse a political office holder of wrongdoing. For example, President Clinton was actually impeached and not removed from office. Help us to settle this.

You're right. Impeach doesn't mean to remove from office, but it's often a prelude to removing a public official from office. To impeach is to “charge (a public official) with an offense or misdemeanor committed while in office.”

 In other words, it means to formally accuse a public official of a crime. In the United States, it is only the House of Representatives that has the power to impeach the president.  The next procedure after impeachment is trial and then removal or acquittal. In the United States, only the Senate has the power to try and remove or acquit a president who has been impeached (by the House of Representatives).  Only two presidents have been impeached in America’s history, and both were acquitted by the Senate. They are President Andrew Johnson (America’s 17th president who was acquitted by just one vote) and President Bill Clinton (America’s 42nd president).

Nigerian newspapers interchange “impeach” with “remove from office” because they are copying the authors of the Nigerian constitution who don’t seem to know what “impeachment” really means. In the only two passages in the Nigerian constitution that the word “impeachment” appears, it is used as if it meant “removal.” Section 146 (3) (a) of the document says, “where the office of vice president becomes vacant – by reason of death, resignation, impeachment, permanent incapacity or removal in accordance with section 143 or 144 of this Constitution….”
Again, in Section 191 (3) (a) of the constitution the following sentence appears: “where the office of deputy governor becomes vacant – by reason of death, resignation, impeachment, permanent incapacity or removal in accordance with section 188 or 189 of this Constitution….”

Well, an office can’t possibly become vacant by reason of “impeachment.” Just like people don’t go to prison simply because they have been accused of an offense, a vice president’s office can’t become vacant simply because he or she has been impeached. That would be a perversion of justice. 

Impeachment simply means accusation, and accusation is never a basis for conviction. To convict an accused person, you have to try him or her first. Plus, conviction is not the only possible outcome of a trial. An accused (or impeached) person can be acquitted after trial, as was the case for the two US presidents that were impeached.

 Curiously, the Nigerian constitution never uses the word “impeachment” in relation to the president and state governors; it instead talks of the procedures for the “removal” of the president and of governors from office.

The people who wrote the 1999 Nigerian constitution are clearly not sufficiently educated about the meanings of the terminologies they deployed in the constitution. And they passed on their ignorance to the Nigerian news media and to the Nigerian populace.

President Goodluck Jonathan declared in a world press conference at the end of the World Economic Forum for Africa that he will henceforth not sleep "with both eyes closed" until the girls have been found. I did a Google search of the expression and almost all the web pages returned were of Nigerian origin. What do you think?

“Sleep with both eyes closed” is not a standard idiomatic expression in English. The usual expression is "sleep with one eye open," which means to be mentally perceptive and responsive, to be on a “stand-by alert” in the event of danger. A related expression is “fox’s sleep,” which arose from the notion that foxes sleep with one eye open because of the ever-present treacherousness of the forest.  President Jonathan inverted the standard “sleep with one eye open” to “won't sleep with both eyes closed." Was he being linguistically creative here? Maybe. But is he unidiomatic? Absolutely.

My question is not exactly on Patience Jonathan but rather on another observation I made on a piece I read somewhere and which I want you to analyze for further enlightenment. The piece was titled, "Monica Lewinsky has corrected Beyoncé on a lyric in the singer's recent song 'Partition'."

Beyoncé song references a dress worn by Lewinsky with a semen stain left by Bill Clinton. In this piece, Beyoncé was reported to have said in the lyric, "He Monica Lewinsky'd all over my gown", in reference to what former US President, Bill Clinton, did on Monica Lewinsky's dress. And Monica Lewinsky was said to have corrected Beyoncé by saying, "Thanks, Beyoncé, but if we're verbing, I think you meant 'Bill Clinton'd all on my gown,' not 'Monica Lewinsky'd.'"

My observation here is that this expression may likely be popularized and eventually be accepted as a Standard English idiomatic expression. How would you classify these kinds of occurrences in the English language? Is that why languages that accept such evolutions are called living languages?

Secondly, could you explain what Monica Lewinsky means by, "verbing" above?

That’s an interesting question.  I know "verbing" as "verbification," which means to turn a word that is not usually a verb into a verb.  More often than not, it is nouns that get modified as verbs. A classic example is "out-herod," usually in the expression "out-herod Herod," which means to surpass someone in cruelty. It's in reference to a Biblical king called Herod who was said to be exceptionally cruel. “Out-herod” is modeled after verbs like “outdo” and “outfox.” But there are several common, less dramatic examples such as “stomach” (as in “I can’t stomach his rudeness”), “table” (as in “we tabled the issue before the committee”), “chair” (as in “he chaired the meeting), etc. Stomach, chair, table, began life as nouns, but their use as verbs is now pretty standard.

Verbification or verbing is an age-old practice in English. Famous English writers like Shakespeare did it to great effect.  Some verbifications are transient and region-specific; others endure and enjoy worldwide acceptance.  Verbs like incentivize, gift, fax, xerox, Google, Mirandize (to tell someone under investigation that they have a right to a lawyer and that whatever they say to the police can be used against them in a court of law), etc. have enriched the English language and have become part of our everyday expressive repertoire.  It remains to be seen, however, if “Bill Clintoned” or “Monika Lewinskyed” can survive. I doubt they will.

When I was at the Ealing Hospital, London, 2005, I noticed that people regularly pluralised blood in the sense of blood samples as in 'take bloods for microbiology and chemistry'.

That’s definitely in-group vernacular. As I noted in my “A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Patience Jonathan’s Recent Televised Histrionics,” in conversational English it is rare to pluralize blood—well, unless you’re Dame Patience Jonathan. When people have a need to quantify blood they usually say something like “pints of blood.”

But it’s not only medical professionals that pluralize words that everyday users of the language don’t pluralize. Humanities and social science scholars also pluralize words that regular people don't pluralize, such as "logics," “knowledges,” “publics,” etc.

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