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“Past is Prologue” and Other Presidential Inaugural Turns of Phrase

By Farooq Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi Many readers wondered why I didn’t write about President Buhari’s “past-is-prolog...

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

Many readers wondered why I didn’t write about President Buhari’s “past-is-prologue” statement in my analysis of his inaugural address last week. The simple answer is that I ran out of space. I exceeded my word limit.

There is no doubt that this Shakespearesque expression was the most puzzling in Buhari’s inaugural address. It appears to contradict the statements that preceded it. “A few people have privately voiced fears that on coming back to office I shall go after them. These fears are groundless. There will be no paying off old scores. The past is prologue,” he said.

 A prologue is the introduction to a play, and has been extended metaphorically in popular usage to mean a beginning, an opening, as in, “Appetizing delicacies were the prologue to a long dinner.” That was the sense of the word America’s 4th president James Madison had in mind when he famously said in 1822 that “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.”

If prologue means the beginning, what did Buhari mean by “the past is prologue,” especially after saying “there will be no paying off old scores”?  When we say “past is prologue,” we usually mean the past matters and will shape the present and, perhaps, the future. In other words, it means whatever happened in the past won’t be forgotten. That sense sharply contradicts the conciliatory sentiments that the preceding sentence conveys, that is, that “there will be no paying off old scores.”

As I hinted earlier, Buhari’s “past-is-prologue” statement is derived from an adaptation of a statement from a Shakespearean Play called The Tempest where Antonio says "(And by that destiny) to perform an act, Whereof what's past is prologue; what to come, In yours and my discharge."

The phrase is used in modern times to mean we can’t ignore the lessons of the past. For instance, during the 2008 American vice presidential debate, when Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused then Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden of dwelling too much in the past at the expense of the present and the future, his retort  was, “Look, past is  prologue.” After Biden’s remark, there was an exponential spike in Google searches for “past is prologue.” Biden, by that quote, meant that we can’t wish away the past; that the past has an abiding effect on the present.

Buhari’s speech writers clearly misused the expression. If Buhari had said, “A few people have privately voiced fears that on coming back to office I shall let criminals who raped this nation go scot free. These fears are groundless. There will be no ignoring the wrongs of the past. The past is prologue,” he would have made sense. But to juxtapose a message of forgiveness of the past with “past is prologue” absolutely makes no sense. If the past is prologue, it means Buhari will indeed pay off old scores.

There are several stock expressions that can help make the case that the sins of the past will be forgiven and forgotten, such as “what is past is past.” There are also countless inspirational quotes about the past being past from well-known personages. Take, for example, Bil Keane’s memorable “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.” Or Mother Teresa’s “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” Or Søren Kierkegaard’s “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Or Rick Warren’s “We are products of our past, but we don't have to be prisoners of it.”

Some people suggest that Buhari intended to send a message that he would go after past leaders who pillaged the nation but chose to make the message intentionally cryptic and ambiguous by juxtaposing two mutually contradictory statements. I am not persuaded.

"…ensure their votes count and were counted.”
In last week’s article, I corrected the above phrase in the inaugural speech to “ensure their votes COUNTED and were counted.” Many readers asked that I take a second look at my correction. 

Someone said “count” was used as a noun in the sentence. I disagree. It was undoubtedly used as a verb and is synonymous with “mattered.” If something “counts,” it means it matters, it carries weight, as in, “in our company everybody’s opinion counts.” If one’s vote counts, it means it has weight, that it matters.

As the reader can see, the sense of “count” that means “carry weight” is indisputably a verb, and verbs are inflected for tense when they express an action. In our case, the action was in the past, so the verb should be inflected for (past) tense. If we replace “count” with other synonymous words, such as “matter,” the awkwardness of the present tense in the sentence would stand out in bold relief. Try, for instance, “ensure their votes matter and were counted.” That certainly sounds awkward.

 If “count” were used as a noun in the sentence (which would be sloppy, ungainly phrasing), then "votes" shouldn't be pluralized, so that "vote" would have functioned as an attributive noun that modifies "count." But it would be an awkwardly meaningless sentence.

“Rescue alive”
Someone called my attention to the needless repetitiveness in the phrase “rescue alive,” which appeared in the inaugural address in the following sentence: “This government will do all it can to rescue [the Chibok girls] alive.”

 Rescue means to save from harm, so it goes without saying that you can’t be said to have rescued people if you can’t bring them alive. If the Chibok girls are brought back dead, then they are not rescued. Since bringing victims alive is central to the notion of a rescue, “rescue alive” is pointless verbiage.

I suspect, however, that Buhari’s speech writers chose the tautological “rescue alive” for emphasis and clarity. Rescuing the girls from Boko Haram would require both combat and tact, which could either result in death or rescue. The speech intended to convey the message that in rescuing the girls, care would be taken to ensure that they come out alive.

It is worth noting that tautologies are not errors. As I pointed out in my June 9, 2013 column titled “Between Useless and Useful Tautologies in English (II),” “In all natural languages, tautologies are inevitable. We all commit tautologies either consciously or unconsciously. I am sure I’ve committed quite a few in this write-up. Tautologies sometimes help give clarity to our thoughts. At other times they intensify, reinforce, and accentuate the messages we seek to convey. They can also be used for literary, aesthetic, stylistic, and humorous effects. Yet, they can be products of laziness and sloppy thinking.”

I think the use of “rescue alive” in Buhari’s inaugural address is inspired by the desire for clarity and intensification of meaning.

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