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Q and A Popular Nigerian English Expressions, Word Usage and Grammar

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Can a child who lost just one parent be called an “orphan”? What do native English speakers call “boys’ q...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Can a child who lost just one parent be called an “orphan”? What do native English speakers call “boys’ quarters”? Why are all American university teachers called “professors”? Why is it wrong to use “light” in place of “electricity” or “power”? Find answers to these and other questions in this week’s Q and A. Enjoy:

I like your answer about “motherless babies’ home.” I didn’t realize that the phrase “motherless babies’ home" is our attempt to say orphanage in Standard English until I read your column. By the way, why is there no “fatherless babies’ home”? Well, I have another question along the same lines. A few days ago my sister and I had an argument about what the proper definition of an orphan is. She said an orphan is a child who has lost both parents, but I said losing just one parent is sufficient to call a child an orphan. Who is right?

My own daughter had a similar argument with her teacher some months ago. She told her teacher that she was an orphan because she lost her mother, but her teacher said she wasn’t an orphan because her dad is alive.

This argument, for me, reflects a clash of cultural contexts. In many African cultures, an orphan is a child who has lost one or both parents. In Islam, an orphan is someone who has lost only a father before the age of maturity.

In English, at least in conversational English, an orphan is someone who has lost both parents. Losing just one parent isn’t enough to call a child an orphan. But the meaning of the word changes when it is applied to an animal. An animal is regarded as an orphan only if loses its mother.

Note, though, that in English an orphan can also be a child who has been abandoned by its biological parents—both of whom may be alive.

It is also noteworthy that UNICEF now talks of “maternal orphans” (to describe children who lost only their mothers), “paternal orphans” (for children who lost only their fathers), and “double orphans” (for children who lost both parents). I think that’s a good cultural compromise.

So both you and your sister are right depending on the context in which the word is being used. When you’re in Britain, America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand I would advise that you use the word to mean someone who has lost both parents.

Can one use chalet in place of boys’ quarters. If neither of the two is correct, what is the native speakers' replacement for boys’ quarters?

Contemporary native English speakers have no concept of a "boys' quarters" in their architectural imagination. It's a colonial legacy that Nigerians still cling to. The British colonizers who introduced the concept to Nigerians used to call their equivalent of Nigerian boys’ quarters "servants' quarters." The phrase—along with the practice of building servants’ quarters— went out of fashion in the early 20th century. Americans, on their part, used to have "slave quarters," but they, too, no longer have them since the 1800s when slavery was abolished.

Boys' quarters, servants' quarters, slave quarters all denote separate housing for social inferiors--or perceived social inferiors. That notion may have evolved in Nigeria, but it's completely alien in contemporary Britain and America.

So “boys’ quarters” would be completely incomprehensible to native English speakers. There is no relationship between a chalet and what Nigerians call “boys’ quarters.”

I am one of the thousands of people who had wondered if “minutes” should take a plural or singular verb. Your answer was very helpful. My own question is: are there nouns that are plural in nature but take a singular verb? If yes, what are they and why is “minutes” not one of them?

Yes, there are nouns that always end with an “s” but that always take singular verbs. Examples are headquarters, mathematics, politics, economics, gymnastics, measles, rabies, barracks, etc. These nouns often agree with singular verbs (that is, verbs that end with “s” and verbs such as “is/was” and “has”). However, when the context changes, these invariably plural nouns sometimes agree with plural verbs (that is, verbs that don’t end with an “s” and verbs such as “are/were” and “have”).

For example, when “headquarters” is used to mean “the place or building serving as the managerial and administrative center of an organization,” it is always singular. Example: “The corporate headquarters of Daily Trust IS located in Abuja.” However, when “headquarters” means “the premises occupied by a military commander and the commander’s staff,” it is always plural. Example:Their military headquarters WERE located at the Hotel Regina in Paris.”

In your series of articles in the Weekly Trust titled “comparison of Nigerian and American University Teachers,” you never once referred to university teachers as “lecturers” as we do here in Nigeria. Why? Was it a deliberate omission? Or was it inadvertent? Do we misuse the word in Nigerian English? As someone once told you in a previous Q and A series, when we read you, we don’t just read you for substance; we also read you for style and grammar.

I deliberately avoided using the word “lecturer” because, unlike in Nigeria, it is not the generic word for a university teacher in America. The generic word for a university teacher in American English is “professor,” which is reserved for the highest rank in academia in Nigerian and British universities. But professor simply means “teacher.”

As I wrote in my November 18, 2010 article titled “Comparing the Vernaculars of American and British Universities,” in American universities the term “lecturer” has two dominant meanings. The first meaning is a public speaker at certain universities. The second meaning is a university teacher who usually doesn’t have a Ph.D., only teaches undergraduates, is not expected to be a researcher, and whose job isn’t permanent. In common usage, however, both lecturers and non-lecturers (assistant, associate and full professors, who form the majority of the instructional corps of American universities) are called “professors.”

In order to avoid confusion, I decided to stick with “university teachers.”

Is it luxury bus or luxurious bus?

It’s “luxury bus.”  Americans also call it “luxury coach” or “express luxury liner.”

In Nigerian English we use “anyhow” to mean “carelessly.” Is this standard usage?

It is, although “anyhow” can also mean other things, such as being a synonym for “anyway.” An alternative idiomatic expression for “carelessly” is “any which way,” as in “Doing your work any which way is just not good enough.”

I have heard people say the way we use “light” in Nigeria English is wrong. Can you explain this to me?

Nigerians say “light” where other users of the English language would say “electricity” or “power.” I wouldn’t say the popular Nigerian English usage of “light” is wrong; it’s just different from the rest of the English-speaking world.

“Light” can mean a whole host of things, such as “any device serving as a source of illumination,” “an illuminated area,” a spark, an igniter, etc., so saying “they’ve taken light” (as Nigerians do when they lose power) can lead non-Nigerians to imagine so many things no remotely connected with the loss of electricity.

In a movie, someone said: 'HE was once a WITCH!' I thought it's supposed to be, HE was once a WIZARD. Yeah?

That surprises me as well. A witch is invariably associated with women. A male witch is called a warlock or a wizard.

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