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Q and A on the English Usage of Nigerian Politics and Politicians

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi I received many questions this week on English usage in Nigerian politics and am...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

I received many questions this week on English usage in Nigerian politics and among Nigerian politicians. Is it “campaign train” or “campaign trail”? Is the phrase “do the needful” that Nigerian politicians have become fond of lately Standard English? PDP publicity secretary Professor Wale Oladipo once defended donations to President Jonathan’s reelection funds as “within the armpit of the law.” Is that a legitimate expression? How about his description of General Buhari as a “semi-illiterate”? Is that even an English word? And is the phrase “attempted attempt” grammatical? For answers to these and other questions, read on.

Is it “campaign train” or “campaign trail”? Our Nigerian newspapers trained me to think that the phrase is “campaign train” until I read your widely read column titled “President Jonathan’s Awkward Grammatical Miscues on the Campaign Trail.” My question is: is “campaign train” wrong English?

The standard idiomatic phrase is “(on the) campaign trail.” It is a fixed expression. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it means “a series of planned events in different places taken part in or given by a politician who is trying to be elected.” Example: “She went on the campaign trail around the Southern states.”

I have no idea why Nigerian journalists write “campaign train” instead of “campaign trail.” It’s probably because they can’t tell “trail” and “train” apart—or because “trail” isn’t an everyday word in Nigerian English, so they choose to substitute it with a similar-sounding and more familiar word. But “campaign train” is legitimate only when you seek to convey the sense that politicians are riding on railway cars during campaigns. American presidential candidates used to travel by trains for brief moments in small towns during presidential campaigns, and such campaigns were called “whistle-stop train tours.” It is defensible to say that the presidents were on “campaign trains.” Although the Jonathan administration makes a big deal of reviving train transportation in Nigeria, I am not aware that any politician in Nigeria rides on trains to canvass votes.

The phrase “do the needful” is becoming very popular in Nigerian political circles in recent times. Where does that phrase come from? Is it Standard English? For some reason, that expression just rubs me the wrong way. Am I being too sensitive?

I am glad you asked this question. The phrase also grates on my nerves. “Do the needful” is a really archaic English expression that survives only in Indian English—and now in Nigerian English courtesy of our brain-dead politicians. CNN Travel identifies the phrase as one of “10 classic Indianisms,” Indianism being English usage unique to the Indian subcontinent.  Many native English speakers are cofounded by it.

I don’t know how the phrase came to Nigerian English, but I am certain that it hasn’t been a part of Nigerian English until about three years ago. Often, where Nigerian politicians in the past would have said “do the right thing,” they now say “do the needful.” Unless you want to communicate with Indians, avoid the phrase like a plague. It frankly sounds retarded to me. I know that’s harsh. I am sorry.

In the Punch of December 30, 2014, Professor Wale Oladipo, PDP’s National Publicity Secretary said, “But let me add that as long as the fund-raising we did was and is still within the armpit of the law, then we have not breached any law....” He also called General Muhammadu Buhari a “semi-illiterate.” My questions are: Is there such a thing as the “armpit of the law”?  And is “semi-illiterate” an English word?

Professor Oladipo clearly meant to say the “ambit of the law.” Ambit means scope, so “ambit of the law” means the scope of the law. To describe anything as the “armpit” of anything is to describe it as a really unpleasant and detestable thing. For instance, if I describe Sambisa as the armpit of Nigeria, I mean it’s the ugliest, most unpleasant place to live in Nigeria. That’s why Americans call any state they detest as the “armpit of the nation.”

Maybe Professor Oladipo was committing a Freudian slip when he said PDP’s obscene fund-raising was “within the armpit of the law.” Railroading state governors who can’t pay salaries to their civil servants to contribute a massive 21 billion naira for President Jonathan’s reelection campaign is without a doubt “within the armpit of the law.” It may not be, strictly speaking, illegal, but it is an ugly, unpleasant, and detestable manipulation of the law, thus “within the  [smelly] armpit of the law.”

And, no, “semi-illiterate” is not an English word. The word the professor was looking for is “semi-literate,” which can mean one of three things: “Literate but poorly informed,” “barely able to read and write,” and “able to read but not to write.” It seems to me that Professor Oladipo is the semi-literate. He appears “literate but poorly informed.” I once called people like that “highly credentialed ignoramuses.” (See my October 26, 2013 article titled “Comparing Nigerian and Ghanaian Presidents’ Recent American Visits.”

I remember reading someone point out that it’s grammatically incorrect to say “join the bandwagon.” What is the correct way of saying it?

I am not sure I would characterize it as “grammatically incorrect.” I would only say the usual rendering of the expression is “jump on the bandwagon.” It means to be part of “an idea or activity, especially in politics or business, that suddenly becomes very popular or fashionable.” Although “join the bandwagon” is the preferred rendering of the expression in Nigerian English, it’s not exclusively Nigerian. The Macmillan Dictionary recognizes “join the bandwagon” as a variant of “jump on the bandwagon.”

I’ve been an avid reader of your grammar column in Sunday Trust for a long time. So I want know your take on this popular (Nigerian?) phrase “attempted attempt.” I first heard it from the recorded speech of former military dictator Sani Abacha. Recently my English lecturer (who is a PhD holder) used the expression, which I had thought was grammatically incorrect. What's your take?

"Attempted attempt" is, technically speaking, not grammatically incorrect, but it's certainly not in popular usage in Standard English. Its use outside Nigeria is confined to certain legal contexts, and it’s often used to describe the initiation or tentative attempt to commit a crime. Nigerian university student union activists, since about the 1980s, have used the phrase for humorous emphasis, and it often goes thus: “any attempt, or attempts, or group of attempts, or attempted attempts to deny our legitimate demands by the authorities will be met with the fiercest revolutionary resistance.” I don’t know if Nigerian student activists still say this, but it was popular during my days as an undergraduate from the early to the mid-1990s.

When is it appropriate to use the pronoun “she” to refer to a country? I see that sometimes a country is called a “her” and at other times an “it.”

The use of “she” to refer to a country is called “personification,” that is, imbuing human qualities to things that aren’t human. It’s a way to show sentimental attachment to or deep affection for places, things, and animals. In their book Longman Guide to English Usage, Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut say “it is old-fashioned and slightly flowery to use ‘she’ of nations and cities. Prefer ‘Britain revised its (rather than ‘her’) agricultural policy.” They add that if you insist on using “she” to refer to your country, be consistent. Don’t say “she” somewhere and say “it” elsewhere in the same speech act or writing.

It would be completely odd if you refer to a country you have no sentimental attachment to as a “she” or “her.”

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