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Q and A on Grammar, Usage, and Naming Conventions in Nigeria, America, and Britain

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi In this week’s Q and A, I answer questions on last-name cultures, differences in...

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

In this week’s Q and A, I answer questions on last-name cultures, differences in the usage of the terms “indisposed” and “ill-disposed,” and what the term “turn of the century” means.

I stumbled upon a seriously hot debate among students of your alma-mater, BUK, about a simple but difficult and complicated topic. As we all know, if a person has two names, his father's name is expected to be his surname. But the debate is if the person has three official names. Which one should be his surname? Is the last or the middle which will remain his father's name? Answer to this question from you will bring an end to this debate.

I am not quite sure I understand your question, but I will take a stab at answering it nonetheless. I have written about naming conventions in International English in the past (see, for instance, my October 15, 2010 article titled “The Grammar of Titles and Naming in International English”).

In English naming conventions, surnames (also called family or last names) are NOT the same thing as one’s father’s first or middle names. Typically, sons, fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers, great-great grandfathers, etc.—including all paternal relatives— have the same surname. That’s why surnames are also called family names. I was reading up on former President George Bush’s family tree the other day and discovered that his ancestors, stretching back to more than 500 years, have been bearing “Bush” as their surname.

Surnames help family members to easily trace their genealogies and make sense of the sometimes labyrinthine network of familial relationships we have.

But we don’t have a systematic surname culture in Nigeria. Most people, especially in northern Nigeria but also in the south, bear their father’s first names as their surnames, thereby erasing their appellative association with their fathers—and with other members of their patrilineal family. For instance a Muhammed Babangida gives birth to a boy whom he names Umar Faruk. Umar grows up, goes to school, and registers his name as Umar Faruk Muhammed because teachers typically ask “what’s your father’s name?” not “what is your family name?” His “surname” is taken from his father’s first name thereby eclipsing his connection with his father—and with his father’s family members who bear Babangida as their surname.

I, too, used to be known as Farooq Umar Adamu even though my father is Adamu Kperogi. I used my father’s first name as my surname. I was a student in the primary school where my father was an Arabic teacher, and you couldn’t tell that we were related based on our names—unless you knew us. I adopted my family name, Kperogi, which connects me to a much larger, illustrious family heritage, only in 1998. Now, my children’s last name isn’t “Farooq”; it is Kperogi. My children’s children’s surname will also be Kperogi. This way, they will know that anybody anywhere in the world whose last name is Kperogi is likely related to them either by blood or by marriage, and they can easily map their genealogy and familial heritage.

I am not by any stretch of the imagination making the case that this is the best naming convention in the world. It’s the English naming convention, which just happens to make a lot of sense to me.

But there are equally many sensible last-name conventions that abound. For instance, it used to be customary for northern Nigerians to bear the names of their hometowns as their last name. Although this hometown surname convention doesn’t make genealogical connections possible, it connects otherwise distant people that share the same geo-cultural, and possibly familial, ancestry. This practice was adopted from Arab/Muslim culture. For instance, the name Bukhari (which we render as Buhari in Nigeria), is derived from Bukhara, which is the name of a city in what is now Uzbekistan in the former USSR. The person who popularized the name is a 9th-century author of hadith collections known as Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl ibn Ibrāhīm ibn al-Mughīrah ibn Bardizbah al-Ju‘fī al-Bukhārī.

While all surname traditions are valid as long as they work for people, I personally think bearing one’s father’s first name as one’s surname isn’t a helpful naming custom.

I have noticed that when women get married they change their names and publish the name change in national dailies. For example one sees things like, “I formerly known as Zainab Umar now wish to be known as Zainab Umar-Ismaila." My question now is whose name is “Umar-Ismaila?" From my little knowledge of word morphology, Umar-Ismaila should be the name of a particular person which, in this case, belongs to nobody. I think the best way to go about it is to make the former name compound and leave Ismaila as the family name to have "Zainab-Umar Ismaila" I don't know if  I  am right because even well-respected journalists, academics, and technocrats are ignorant of this word formation.

No, they are not ignorant. You are describing what is called "double-barrelled surnames" or "hyphenated surnames," and Nigerian women who practice that naming tradition inherited it from our former British colonizers. Moneyed, aristocratic, upper-class women in Britain never want to give up their family names when they get married. So they devised naming conventions that ensure that they don’t lose the social status that comes with their family names even after marriage.

The first known convention is the use of the term “née,” which is French for “born,” to indicate the former surname (or maiden name) of a married woman. So, to use your example, if Zainab Umar got married to Musa Ismail, she will write her name as Mrs. Zainab Ismaila née Umar. This practice is no longer as common as it used to be.

What is now common is for the woman to combine her former surname (Umar) with her husband's surname (Ismaila) and hyphenate the names to show that they are separate yet connected. That way, she has connection both to her family and to her husband's family. Your suggestion that married women hyphenate their first and maiden names and leave their husband’s surname as a standalone name wouldn’t make any sense. I know of no naming tradition in the world that countenances that.

It is rare for American women to hyphenate their last names upon marriage; they simply use both names, such as Zainab Umar Ismaila, without a hyphen. A good example is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who used to be known as Hillary Rodham before she married Bill Clinton. President Obama’s wife, too, is officially called Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama. In her case, she still retains her middle name.

It's also common for American women to give up their former last names entirely and adopt their husband's upon marriage. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instance, recently told the American media that she wants to be simply known as Hillary Clinton.

 What is also becoming increasingly common is for women to never adopt their husband's surnames upon marriage, so that if didn’t ask, you wouldn’t know from last names if a man and a woman are married. This has been part of Muslim culture for ages. In Islam there is no expectation that women should adopt their husband’s surnames when they get married, and many don’t.

Is the word “indisposed” not suitable when one is trying to say he is ill? I am asking because I told my HOD that I was indisposed and would not be able to attend a meeting, and his response was that I should tell him why I was indisposed.

That’s funny! Well, your usage of “indisposed” is correct. The first and most widely understood meaning of “indisposed” is to be ill. So you’re absolutely correct. But “indisposed” can also mean not willing or inclined. The more regular word for that, though, is “ill-disposed.” Maybe your HOD understood you as referring to the second meaning of “indisposed” or, in fact, “ill-disposed.” I should mention, too, that “ill-disposed” is also sometimes used to mean ill, not in good health, but that was initially considered a usage error. Many people still think it is.

What does the phrase “turn of the century” mean? John Grisham (that American novelist) used the phrase thus: “The streets were lined with turn-of-the-century rowhouses, all of which were still inhabited...” Are the rowhouses of the beginning of the century or of the end?

It can mean both the beginning and the end of the century. The turn of the century is typically defined as 10 years before the end of a century and 10 years following the start of a new century. But because it is such a slippery, imprecise term, many careful writers avoid it and simply mention the years they are referring to.

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