Sunday, June 26, 2016

“Face the Full Wrath of the Law”: Q and A on Nigerian, American and British English

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

In Nigeria, it is common for government officials and security personnel to say that criminals will “face the full wrath of the law.” I searched the expression in dictionaries, books of idioms and several grammar internet sites and haven’t found it. Is this a uniquely Nigerian English expression?

No, it is not a uniquely Nigerian English expression, although it is almost absent in contemporary American and British English. The expression "the (full) wrath of the law" is a translation from German. My findings show that it was first used in print in an English translation of German theologian Martin Luther's "Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians," which he wrote in 1535.

The German version of the expression, which came to us in English as “(full) wrath of the law,” is "vollen Zorn des Gesetzes." However, my former German-American student told me the expression has evolved since the 1500s when Martin Luther used it. “Nowadays, we'd say ‘mit der ganzen Härte des Gesetzes,’ which translates to ‘with the full force of the law.’  And yes, it means that someone is being punished with the full force of the law, in a judicial meaning,” she told me. “It appears as though the ‘wrath of the law’ Luther was taking about was referring to God's law.” gives more insight into the expression. Although the everyday meaning of “wrath” is intense anger, the site says, “The word ‘wrath’ here is to be taken in the sense of punishment." That’s precisely how Nigerian English speakers use and understand the expression.

I haven’t investigated and mapped the genealogy of the expression, but I am almost certain that it came to Nigerian English via British and Irish Christian missionaries. The fact that the expression is also common in other African English varieties like Zimbabwean English (but completely absent in the conversational English of native English speakers) lends credence to this.

Because, at the dawn of colonialism, the British Colonial Office was not interested in the education of the “natives,” Christian missionaries took it upon themselves to build schools and educate newly colonized people. So, early education in most of the former British colonies, especially in Africa, was not secular. Protestant Christian missionaries were so involved in British colonial education policy that it was customary to refer to them as Britain’s “unofficial partner” in the colonial project. It was probably why German Roman Catholic missiologist J. Schmidlin famously remarked in 1913 that “To missionize is to colonize and to colonize is to missionize.”

The surviving sociolinguistic remnants of this legacy are still evident in the archaic missionary (and biblical) English that defines the distinctiveness of Nigerian and African English. “The full wrath of the law” is one great example of that.

I want to know whether classmates, coursemates and colleagues are interchangeable. I saw them in a Nigerian newspaper. In my search, "coursemate" has no entry in my dictionaries, and colleague is not related to classmate. (2) GOSSIPER is found in many online dictionaries but not in my hard-copy dictionaries. Does that mean it is not a legitimate word? Many authors in Nigeria frown at its usage seriously.

“Coursemate” isn’t Standard English, although I've found recent examples of its usage in a few British newspapers, including an entry in, a user-generated online dictionary. An examination of the usage of the term across the world’s Englishes, however, shows that it’s most commonly used in Nigerian English. Malaysian English is a distant second. It is entirely unknown in American English.

“Classmate” is the more usual word for someone you go to school with. “Class fellow,” “schoolfellow,” and “schoolmate” are popular alternatives.

“Gossiper” is a legitimate word that has entries in several Oxford dictionaries and that appears in respectable usage. It is synonymous with “gossip” or “gossipmonger.” Curiously, though, I found no match for “gossiper” when I searched the British National Corpus, but found several references to it in the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

I personally never use the word, even casually, because I was taught from my formative years in Nigeria that it was improper English.

My tutor told me that American and British varieties of English are not allowed to be mixed verbally or in writing. Is this true?

Why not? Well, I think he probably meant that it helps to be consistent with one variety. But there are several American English expressions in British English and vice versa. And because American English is the dominant variety in today’s international English, it is really difficult to maintain a strict demarcation between American English and British English.

Several everyday English expressions started as Americanisms before being diffused widely in global English. Words and expressions like “radio,” “immigrant,” “squatter,” “teenager,” “lengthy,” “to advocate,” “to locate,” “to belittle,” “live wire,” “hot air,” “third degree,” “cold war,” “mass meetings,” “peace process,” “OK,” “movie,” etc. have distinctively American origins and were once derided as “horrible Americanisms” by British English speakers. Today, they are so integral to our everyday expressions that many of us can’t even imagine why the Brits had problems with them.

On the other hand, many Briticisms never cross the Atlantic, a recent notable exception being the sudden popularity in American English of the informal British English word “gobsmacked” after “Britain’s Got a Talent” internet sensation Susan Boyle used it to describe her unexpected success at the talent show. The word means “to be so surprised that you don’t know what to say.” After she told CNN she was “gobsmacked, absolutely gobsmacked” by her success, the word topped internet search terms in America for weeks on end. Now, I see that many Americans have integrated it into their active idiolect.

 However, some American expressions are still resisted by British writers and speakers. Expressions such as “OK, I guess,” “to check up on,” “to lose”; the sentence adverb “hopefully”; spellings such as “color,” “theater”; forms such as “gotten (British “got”), proven (British “proved”), “dove” (dived), “snuck” (sneaked); and grammatical features such as the use of “he” to refer back to “one” (One must support his team; British “one’s” team) or informal “real” (That was real good; British “really good”) have not made successful inroads into British English. So are numerous words and phrases like “sidewalk” for pavement, “gas” for petrol, “first floor” for ground floor (with corresponding changes for other floors), “faucet” for tap, “name for” for the British “name after” (as in, Washington DC was named for (British: named after) former American President George Washington), “wash up” for wash face and hands, etc.

When I say ''no amount of teaching, including a quote from his book, WAS going to change their mind.'' Is the above statement correct, or must I use WERE?

It should be "was." But if you had said, "no amount of teaching AND a quote from his book...," the right verb would have been "were." Phrases that start with prepositions like "including," "along," "with," etc. are not considered part of the subject of a sentence.

Related Article:

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Ayo Fayose’s Smear Against Aisha Buhari and Imperative of Investigative Journalism

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

Ekiti State Governor Ayo Fayose’s willfully false charge that Wife of the President Aisha Buhari is the “Aisha Buhari” implicated in the infamous cash-for-contract Halliburton scandal between 1994 and 2004 has animated a frenetic, impassioned conversation on Nigerian cyberspace. My intervention in a Facebook status update after reading Premium Times’ tendentious reporting on the allegation both (re)structured and intensified this conversation.

For the benefit of readers who are not on Facebook—or who are neither my friends nor my followers on Facebook—here is what I wrote:

Premium Times' reporting on Gov. Ayo Fayose's allegation against Wife of the President Aisha Buhari is reckless, factually inaccurate, and libelous all rolled into one. This is particularly disquieting because thousands, perhaps millions, of Nigerians on social media are ignorantly spreading a malicious falsehood against an innocent woman.

“Read the original New York Times story published on April 29, 2007 to know that the ‘Aisha Buhari’ mentioned in the corruption scandal ISN'T the president's wife. In the New York Times story, ‘Aisha Buhari’ identified herself as the ‘daughter’ of ‘General Muhammadu Buhari,’ not his wife. Of course, President Muhammadu Buhari has no daughter by that name. The said ‘Aisha Buhari’ is obviously a criminal impostor who has not the remotest relationship with President Buhari either by marriage or by blood. 

"Take a look at her picture, which I downloaded from the New York Times website, and tell me if she bears even the slightest resemblance to Mrs. Aisha Buhari or any of the president's daughters. This lady is a major-league scammer who has refused to reveal her real identity, and Premium Times failed to do basic fact-checking to confirm this. It took me less 2 minutes to find this out.

“In case you're not able to read the full story from the New York Times, here are excerpts that conclusively show that the ‘Aisha Buhari’ mentioned in the story is neither the president's wife nor any of his daughters. If the real Mrs. Aisha Buhari decides to sue Premium Times (and Ayo Fayose), predicting her success against them in the court is a slam dunk, as Americans say:

‘As for Ms. Buhari, who is living in Virginia, it’s not clear who she really is. For one, she is under investigation in Nigeria by its Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, said its head, Nuhu Ribadu.

‘Mr. Ribadu said he is uncertain if her name is Aisha Buhari, but he added that she is not a daughter of General Buhari. The former Nigerian ruler agrees.

‘”I don’t have any relationship with that Aisha Buhari,” Mr. Buhari said. “I don’t have any daughter called Aisha Buhari living outside this country. She is not my daughter.”

‘Mr. Ribadu’s agency has asked American authorities to arrest Ms. Buhari. That has not happened, but the Justice Department has an interest in her. Last summer, she testified before a grand jury investigating Mr. Jefferson, the congressman, who is suspected of soliciting bribes from American companies seeking business in Nigeria.’

“I won't hesitate to criticize Buhari (and his wife) if and when they err, but I won't tolerate irresponsible and malevolent smears on people's reputation.”

After my status update went viral on multiple social media platforms, the biographical information page of a passport belonging to an “Aisha Mohammadu Buhari” surfaced. People who shared the passport on social media said it belonged to the fake “Aisha Buhari” mentioned in the Halliburton bribery scandal whose New York Times photo I shared on my Facebook page.

I looked hard at the photo in the passport to see if it bears any resemblance to the photo in the New York Times story. Although I saw some resemblance, I frankly couldn’t say this with cocksure certainty precisely because the New York Times photo appeared to be a stealth photo that didn’t quite capture the woman’s full frontal visage.

I wasn’t surprised when the “Aisha Mohammadu Buhari” shown in the passport came out to forcefully disclaim any association with the “Aisha Buhari” associated with the Halliburton scam. “They are desperate to cover their dirty track and link my name with the scandal that they have to first of all steal my passport,” she said. “My passport was stolen early this year. And to give credibility to their story, details from the passport were used.”

This case is practically crying to be thoroughly investigated and unearthed by a smart, careful, transaction-oriented journalistic sleuthhound. 

First, the lady hasn’t said the passport is fake; she says it is indeed hers, but that it was stolen “early this year” “to give credibility to [the] story” that Mrs. Aisha Buhari has no connection with the Halliburton scam. Now, that’s an astonishingly illogical chronological inversion. Did the people who “stole” her passport early this year have a crystal ball that foretold that Ayo Fayose would accuse President Buhari’s wife of complicity in the Halliburton scandal in June 2016 and therefore stole her passport in readiness for this?

Second, the biographical information contained in the passport indicates that the said “Aisha Mohammadu Buhari” was born in Daura. Yes, Daura in Katsina State—President Buhari’s hometown. Is that a coincidence? Does anyone in Daura know the woman shown in the photo? She said she was born on August 4, 1975. Who are her parents in Daura? This is easily verifiable information because Daura is a small town.

Third, does anyone in Daura know any “Aisha Mohammadu Buhari” who lives in the Washington DC area, that is, Washington DC itself, Virginia, or Maryland? This should also be easy to verify because I don’t imagine that there are many Daura indigenes who live in the United States given that the United States has historically not been a destination of choice for northern Nigerians.

“Aisha Mohammadu Buhari’s” place of residence in the United States is particularly curious because the New York Times story of 2007 described the “Aisha Buhari” implicated in the Halliburton scandal as “living in Virginia,” which is contiguous with Washington, DC. She renewed her Nigerian passport in 2012 in Washington DC, indicating that she most likely lives around the area. (Virginia and Maryland are to Washington DC what Niger State and Nassarawa State are to Abuja.)

Fourth, what are the odds that a lady who claims to be born in Daura to a “Mohammadu Buhari” isn’t impersonating the most famous Buhari from that town? (By the way, President Buhari insists on his name being spelled as “Muhammadu”—and not any other variant. If “Aisha Mohammadu Buhari” was attempting to appropriate the president’s name, she obviously didn’t get the memo that Buhari resents his name being spelled in any variant other than “Muhammadu”).

Finally, since we have information that an “Aisha Buhari” testified before a US grand jury in 2006, it is entirely possible to ascertain her (photographic) identity from that testimony. Plus, New York Times’ Michael Temchine who took the stealth photo of “Aisha Buhari” in 2007 in Virginia with the caption “Aisha Buhari has claimed that she is the daughter of the former military ruler of Nigeria, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari” should be able to give us insights into the real identity of the scammer pretending to be “Aisha Buhari” that he photographed.

Premium Times and Sahara Reporters should be able to investigative the US angle of this conundrum. They have the resources and contacts to do it.

Related Article:

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Islam, Homophobia, and the Orlando Gay Massacre

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

A few weeks before Afghan-American psychopathic terrorist Omar Mateen murdered 50 people and injured 53 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, I was involved in an email dialogue with a group of conservative Americans over homosexuality and women’s rights in Islam.

The conversation was instigated by a cheeky, if ignorant, conservative cartoon that was intended to poke fun at Muslims and American liberals. The cartoon basically implied that the punishment for homosexuality in Islam is death by hanging and that women have no rights in Islam but that naïve, oversensitive American liberals who mollycoddle every marginal group in the country will never have the nerve to condemn these retrograde values unless they are identified with conservative Republicans.
Omar Mateen
 In the cartoon, a man strikes up a conversation with a liberal American woman. “I don’t believe that women have any rights, and I think gays should be hanged,” he says.

“Wow, what a primitive asshole you are! You must be a Republican,” the liberal American woman says in response.

“No, actually, I am a Muslim and those are my religious beliefs,” the man says.

“Oh! I am sorry! I apologize! I hope you don’t think I’m Islamophobic!” the liberal American woman says.

People on the email list, almost all of whom were white American conservatives, got a kick out of the cartoon. It reinforced their prejudices. It gave comfort to the ethnocentric biases they cherish about Muslims. My friend, who is also a white American conservative, copied me on the email precisely because he knows me to be politically liberal and culturally Muslim.

I initially chose to ignore the cartoon. I thought my intervention wouldn’t do much to persuade these cognitively simple American conservatives to abandon the prejudices that have found homes in their hearts and minds. But something told me to intervene. So I did.

I hit the “reply all” button and composed this response: “I know this is just a cartoon whose goal is merely to give us cause for a little chuckle, but its premise is too factually inaccurate to be left unchallenged. Muslims don't believe women have no rights, and the punishment for homosexuality in Islam isn't death by hanging.

“Muslim women have been entitled to inheritance, for instance, since the 7th century when most parts of the world treated women as property. This right is enshrined in the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book…. Of course, there is no denying that many Muslim women are oppressed in many Muslim societies, but Muslim women have way more scripturally codified rights in Islam than many non-Muslims are aware of.

“As for hanging homosexuals, the Qur'an has not prescribed any punishment, much less the punishment of ‘hanging,’ for homosexuality; it only condemns it. However, some Muslim theologians over the years have ruled that homosexuals should be ‘executed.’ Others say they should be ‘stoned.’ Yet others say they should be thrown from a high building. But all agree that these harsh penal prescriptions have no doctrinal basis in the Muslim holy book. No homosexuals were ever punished, much less executed, during the lifetime of the prophet of Islam, leading some Muslim scholars to maintain that there is no scripturally sanctioned punishment for homosexuality in Islam.

“The Bible, on the other hand, is unambiguous on the punishment for homosexuality. According to Leviticus 20:13, ‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.’”

Nobody responded. I don’t know why. Perhaps they looked up my claims and found them to be accurate. Unfortunately, about two weeks after this, Omar Mateen, who was apparently a closet gay, murdered 50 gay people in cold blood for no reason other than that they were gays. And both he and others attributed this barbarous mass slaughter to inspiration from his Muslim faith.

While I was ruminating over this senseless mass murder of innocents and my email correspondence with the conservative Americans on the position of Islam and Christianity regarding punishment for homosexuality, I came across the news story of a pastor called Steven Anderson who celebrated and justified Mateen’s mass murder of gay people in Orlando.

In a sermon posted on YouTube, Pastor Anderson said, “The good news is that there’s 50 less pedophiles in this world, because, you know, these homosexuals are a bunch of disgusting perverts and pedophiles.” Then he adds: “I don’t believe it’s right for us to just be a vigilante… But I will say this: The Bible says that homosexuals should be put to death, in Leviticus 20:13….[T]hese people all should have been killed, anyway, but they should have been killed through the proper channels, as in they should have been executed by a righteous government that would have tried them, convicted them, and saw them executed. Because, in Leviticus 20:13, God’s perfect law, he …put the death penalty on homosexuality. That’s what the Bible says, plain and simple.”

This wasn’t the first time he advocated the murder of gays. In a December 1, 2014 sermon (which is still on YouTube), he told his congregation that “If you executed the homos like God recommends, you wouldn’t have all this AIDS running rampant.”

The wacky Westboro Baptist Church also celebrated the mass murder of gays in Orlando and even said, in a statement, that “God sent the shooter” to destroy “Sodom America.” Similarly, a pastor in Sacramento, California, according to a June 14, 2016 story in, said this to his flock in the aftermath of the shooting: “Hey, are you sad that 50 pedophiles were killed today? No … I think that’s great. I think that helps society. I think Orlando, Florida’s a little safer tonight…. The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die.” (Raw Story chronicled other “Christian leaders [who] showed their love by celebrating the Orlando nightclub massacre”).

Now, what am I getting at? There is always the potential for murderous extremism in the lunatic fringes of religions, including Islam and Christianity. The difference is that in contemporary society there is institutional and cultural restraint to act out violent religion-inspired fantasies in the West, while there is little or none in most parts of the Muslim world.

Although the Bible sanctions the murder of homosexuals, the worst that homosexuals have suffered in the hands of Christian fundamentalists is rhetorical violence. And while there is no punishment for homosexuality in the Qur’an, it’s easy for extremists in Islam to invoke weak hadiths and questionable theological arguments to commit mass murder.

In a strange way, the conservative cartoon whose intent is to mock Muslims perfectly captures the paradoxical unity in extremism between culturally conservative Republicans (who are often fundamentalist Christians) and Muslim extremists. The gay mass murder and its aftermath prove this.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

“In all ramifications,” “Happy iftar”: Q and A on Nigerian and Global English Usage

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

How do I say "barka da shan ruwa" in English? Can I simply say "Happy iftaar?” But then I know "iftaar" is an Arabic word.

Someone asked a similar question years ago. My response to your question will draw from the response I gave then. There are many expressions that are simply untranslatable to other languages because of the vastness of the socio-cultural differences between the languages. “Sannu da shan ruwa” or “barka da shan ruwa” is one such expression.

A literal translation of sannu da shan ruwa (which would be “greeting on drinking water”) makes absolutely no sense in English, and an idiomatic translation of the expression in English is impossible. So if I were to meet a native English speaker who is a Muslim and I need to greet him or her after iftar, I would simply say "sannu da shan ruwa” (or, if I want to be linguistically nationalistic, I would say “bese ka noru,” which is the literal and idiomatic Baatonu equivalent to the Hausa sannu da shan ruwa) and explain what the expression means instead of trying to get an English equivalent for it, because it doesn't exist.

It is conceivable, however, that in the near future, if enough Hausa people live in environments where English is a native language, these kinds of unique socio-cultural phrases will be literally translated into English and adopted by the speakers—if such phrases fill a cultural and socio-linguistic void. That was what happened with the expression “long time no see.” It is a direct translation from Chinese, which makes no grammatical sense in English.

Another example is the phrase “enjoy!” often uttered in (American) airlines and restaurants after people are served a meal. It’s an attempt to translate the French “bon appetit,” which would literally translate as “good appetite” in English, but which actually means “enjoy your meal.” It’s a unique French sociolinguistic quiddity that English speakers now have a need to mimic because of French cultural influence. (Native English speakers don’t traditionally utter any special expression before meals).

Nevertheless, it might help to know that English-speaking American Muslims usually say “happy iftar,” or “wish you a joyous iftar,” during the feast after fast. Thankfully, “iftar” has entered American English lexicon because of the annual White House Iftar Dinner started by Hillary Clinton in 1996 when she was First Lady.
Obama hosts Annual White House Iftar Dinner
Many thanks for your articles which I have always found refreshing and enlightening. I would like to know if the word 'counsel' (as in lawyer) can be pluralised with the addition of an 's.' A colleague of mine insisted it cannot. What is the true position?

It is true that "counsel" is an invariably plural noun, which is treated as an uncountable noun that does not admit of an “s” to form a plural like "news," "advice," “equipment,” “furniture,” etc. If you want to pluralize it, say "lawyers" or "attorneys." But different groups of lawyers can be called counsels.

Can you tell me why the article "an" is used for acronyms that don’t start with a vowel? For example, a recent New York Times article used "an SEC...." instead of “a SEC…” even though “s” is a consonant.

It's because what determines whether we use “an” or “a” before nouns and acronyms or initialisms is the sound of the first alphabet, not the alphabet itself. SEC is pronounced “es-ee-see.” That means the first sound is the vowel "e," which justifies the use of the indefinite article "an." In other words, once the first sound is a vowel, it must be preceded by “an.”

So it’s “an NDA graduate,” (not “a NDA graduate”-- even though “n” is a consonant-- because “N” is pronounced “en”), an “MC at a ceremony,” (not “a MC at a ceremony”), “an SUV” (not “a SUV”).

Also note that it’s “a UAE citizen” (not “an UAE citizen” even though the alphabet “u” is a vowel), “a US citizen,” (not “an US citizen”), etc. It's for the same reason that it’s "a university," not "an university," “a unicorn,” not “an unicorn.” But it’s “an umbrella,” not “a umbrella” because the “u” in umbrella is not pronounced “yoo”—like it is in “university” and “unicorn.”

In wishing people happy birthdays, many Nigerians say they wish celebrants "many happy returns." I suspect that it is incorrect, that it is nonstandard English. Am I right?

No, you are not right. "Many happy returns" is Standard English. It is also sometimes rendered as “many happy returns of the day.” According to the Phrase Finder, “Since the 18th century this has been used as a salutation to offer the hope that a happy day being marked would recur many more times. It is now primarily used on birthdays; prior to the mid 19th century it was used more generally, at any celebratory or festive event.”

"I, Najatu Muhammad, wishes to thank you so much for considering me worthy of being appointed the chairperson…" Is the above statement correct and why? I thought it should be "I, Najatu Muhammad WISH....”

You are right. “I” is the subject of the sentence, and “I” always agrees with a plural verb. Thus, it should be “I, Najatu Muhammad wish to…” However, if the sentence had been “Najatu Muhammad wishes to…” it would have been correct because the subject would be “Najatu Muhammad,” which is a singular subject.

The same principle applies to the singular “you.” You don’t say “You is a kind person”; you say “you are a kind person” even though you are making reference to a singular “you.” In many nonstandard English dialects in Britain and America, however, “you” and “I” agree with singular verbs.

I think it a complete usage error when Nigerians say ''in all ramifications.'' The word ''ramification'' means an unwelcome consequence. I personally have never seen the word used in this (Nigerian) way in countries where English is spoken as a native language.

You are right. A search through the Corpus of Global Web-Based English turned up 101 matches for the phrase “in all ramifications.” Of this, 82 were from Nigerian English, 13 from Ghanaian English, 2 from British English, and one each from Kenyan, Indian, and Canadian English.

Ramification is a derivative of “ramify,” which literally means to grow branches. So ramification can mean branches, an arrangement of branching parts, units of a complex structure, etc. as in, "he broke off one of the ramifications." I think when Nigerian English speakers say “in all ramifications” to mean “in all aspects,” or “in all dimensions,” they are metaphorically extending the literal meaning of ramification (i.e., the branches of a tree). Although the usage is unidiomatic and nonstandard, I think it is legitimate. Of course, you're right that “ramifications” (note that it’s often pluralized) is widely understood among native English speakers to mean an "unwelcome consequence,” as in, “The murder of the soldier is bound to have grave ramifications for the community.”

I am an academic with background in the natural sciences. I read newspapers a lot, do review and also publish articles in scientific journals. Your column has been of immense help to me in understanding English usage. I have a challenge, viz: Is it wrong to begin a sentence with a number? For example, are these sentences correct:  1.25m people die in road crashes...', '7 die in Lagos..' and '9 million naira..' etc.

Thanks for your kind words. There is nothing grammatically wrong with starting a sentence with a number. However, many style guides discourage it. So, to be safe, try to avoid starting sentences with numbers. Either write the numbers in words when they begin a sentence or let a phrase precede them, such as, "Authorities said 1.25 million people die in road crashes."

Related Article:

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Yar’aduaization of Buhari’s Health by His Media Adviser

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina’s troubling ineptitude in media communication and reputation management is turning out to be President Muhammadu Buhari’s gravest albatross. The true state of the president’s health is now shrouded in mystery and is the subject of unhealthy speculations—much like the late President Umar Musa Yar’adua’s was.

In the wake of a June 4, 2016 Premium Times report that the president had “an infection in his left ear, otherwise called Meniere Disease, … which has drastically reduced his outings in the last one week,” Adesina insisted the president was the picture of good health. “Didn’t you see pictures of him receiving Anglican bishops yesterday?” Adesina told the Cable on June 4. “Did he look sick? The president is as fit as a fiddle. Anyone who says he is sick is telling lies.”

 In less than 24 hours after this forceful denial, Adesina issued a statement saying President Buhari would start a 10-day “holiday” to London during which he would "see an E.N.T. specialist for a persistent ear infection." The president, the statement added, "was examined by his Personal Physician and an E.N.T Specialist in Abuja and was treated. Both Nigerian doctors recommended further evaluation purely as a precaution.”
Dramatization and fictional dialogue courtesy of Dr. Raji Bello
It is remarkable that Adesina didn’t deem it necessary to reconcile his previous impassioned denial of the president’s sickness and his subsequent admission that the president was indeed sick. “Persistent” implies that the president’s health troubles predated public knowledge of it. In other words, it didn’t just start on June 5. Yet Adesina knowingly lied that the president was “as fit as a fiddle” and that people who said the president was sick were “telling lies.” How more barefacedly duplicitous can anyone get?

In more ways than one, the media handling of the president’s health eerily recalls how former presidential spokesman Segun Adeniyi and what infamously came to be known as “the Yar’adua cabal” managed the late President Yar’adua’s health and robbed him of the sympathy he deserved from Nigerians. Everything about his health was cloaked in secrecy and doublespeak. The truth and the Nigerian nation also became casualties of the president’s sickness. (I’m not by any means implying that the same fate that befell Yar’adua would befall Buhari; I am only comparing the media handling of the health of the two leaders).

There is nothing to be ashamed of in sickness. It’s a garment we all must periodically wear in the course of our ephemeral earthly existence. My over 90-year-old father also has an over 20-year-old persistent ear infection that has impaired his hearing. So I am intimately familiar with the distress of an ear infection. That’s why I feel more than sympathy for the president; I feel deep empathy for him.

But while I sincerely empathize with the president and hope and pray that he gets well soon, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the decision to take him to a London hospital to treat an ear infection that Adesina said the president’s personal physician and an ENT specialist have “treated,” especially in the face of the fact that millions of Nigerians (who are stripped of all subsidies) lack access to basic medical care.

There are at least three reasons why this is unwarrantable. First, it is a direct violation of the president’s own April 27, 2016 directive that forbids government officials from traveling abroad for medical treatment. “While this administration will not deny anyone of his or her fundamental human rights, we will certainly not encourage expending Nigerian hard earned resources on any government official seeking medical care abroad, when such can be handled in Nigeria,” Buhari was quoted to have said in an April 27, 2016 Punch news report. Yet, although his ear infection was already “treated” in Nigeria, he flew to London “purely out of precaution.” In other words, he really didn’t need to go to London; he just went there out of an abundance of caution. Here, I am sticking strictly to the official statement released by the president’s media adviser.

Second, more than 4 billion naira has been allocated to the presidential clinic in this year's budget. That's more than the combined allocation to several teaching hospitals that serve millions of Nigerians who can’t afford the luxury to travel abroad for their medical needs. What I wrote in my May 28, 2016 column titled "Sacrifice by the Poor Amid Subsidies for the Rich" is particularly apposite now. I wrote: "The medical center in the Villa will be maintained with N3.89 billion. But this excludes drugs. Within this budget year, more than N200 million has been allocated to buy drugs for the State House clinic. Never mind that the president actually goes to London for his medical needs.

"In February this year when he went to London for a routine medical check-up, he told Nigerians in the UK that he had been using his UK doctors 'since 1978 when I was in Petroleum.' So over 4 billion naira has been allocated for a medical facility in the presidential villa that the president may not even use, yet the poor are told to 'sacrifice' because the country is 'broke.'"

In these existentially precarious times when workers are owed several months of back wages, wages that are already made worthless by an unconscionably ill-advised increase in fuel prices, when everyday Nigerians are being denuded of every imaginable subsidy in the face of the unimaginable agony several of them already writhe in, how can anyone with even a smidgen of basic morality justify flying the president to London, using public funds, to treat an ear infection "purely out of precaution"?

Third, news of the president’s ear treatment in London has spread wildly in the international media, and has made Nigeria and Nigerians the butt of cruel, unflattering jokes all over the world. I didn’t realize how wide the news had spread until some of my American students asked me with a suppressed but nonetheless detectable tone of derision if it was true that my country’s president had been flown to London to treat an ear infection. In the comments sections of the story of Buhari’s London ear infection treatment in British newspapers, several Britons had a field day mocking Nigerians, with some pointing out that the president may ironically be treated by Nigerian doctors in London.

The shame and embarrassment are just too much to bear. If this had happened in a previous administration, I probably would have ignored it as just one more evidence of the atrophy of the Nigerian state. This is NOT the Buhari presidency I envisioned.

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Sunday, June 5, 2016

“Medicated Glasses,” “Food is Sweet,” “I Want to Ease Myself”: Q and A on Nigerian English Expressions

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

In this edition, I answer several questions on Nigerian English usage and on the differences between American and British English usage. Enjoy.

Is “medicated glasses” Standard English? I ask because I was in communication with a native English speaker and he couldn’t understand what I meant by “medicated glasses.” The problem wasn’t my accent because it was written communication. Is the phrase Nigerian English? If yes, what do native English speakers call it?

My findings show that the phrase is more prevalent in West African English (Nigerian, Ghanaian, Sierra Leonean, Gambian, and Liberian English) than in any English variety. However, I found references to “medicated glasses” in US newspapers in the early 1900s, but even in those references the phrase is always wrapped with quotation marks, indicating that its use wasn’t general. It must have been limited to medical contexts.

However, the commonly used phrase in American English for what West African English speakers call “medicated glasses” is “prescription glasses.” In British English, they are just called “glasses.” When glasses are not prescribed (or, as we say in West African English, “medicated”), they are called sunglasses.

So if your interlocutor is American, tell him or her that you were referring to prescription glasses. If he or she is British, simply say “glasses.” Spectacles, which Nigerian English speakers use in place of sunglasses, is in decline in British English and almost wholly absent in American English.

In Nigerian English, when we enjoy food we say it is “sweet.” Is that what native English speakers say, too?

Native English speakers say food is “tasty” or “delicious” (and their children, especially in America, say it’s “yummy”) where Nigerian English speakers say it’s “sweet.” Other common adjectives native speakers use to describe pleasant-tasting food are “appetizing,” “delectable,” “toothsome,” “palatable,” “scrumptious,” “mouthwatering,” etc.

Sweetness tends to be reserved mostly for the sensation we feel when sugar dissolves in our mouth. It is also extended to sensations resembling literal sweetness, such the taste of honey, saccharin, syrup, etc.

The disposition to describe tasty food as “sweet” is influenced by the lexis and structure of many Nigerian languages where the vocabularies for the sensations we feel from eating sugar and from eating food are indistinguishable. In Yoruba, for instance, o dun can refer both to sugar and to food. In Hausa, yayi dadi can refer to both sugar and any kind of tasty food. In Baatonun, ya do can be used for both sugar and for food. In Igbo, atọ ụtọ stands for sweetness both for sugar and for food.

Your column has piqued my interest in language and English grammar in ways that my formal classroom learning did not. After more than 6 years of following your column I now have greater interest in the differences between American English and British English than I ever did. There are some things I have not been able to understand about American English. For instance, why do Americans call trousers “pants” (which we wear inside our trousers) and petrol “gas” (which is fume and not liquid)?

Blame this on two things: America’s self-conscious assertion of linguistic independence from England and its excessive love for the short form of words. (Read my December 4, 2010 article titled “Neologism and Ebonics in American English” for my take on American fondness for the short forms of words. Among other things, I noted that “Most of the new coinages in American English result from Americans’ obsession with the short forms of words. Over time, these short forms take a life of their own and get weaned from the longer versions of the words from which they were originally derived.”)

“Pants” is the short form of “pantaloons,” the archaic name for trousers, which is extant in French as “pantalon.” It is not related to the British English “pants,” which Americans call “underwear”— or “panties” (sometimes “scanties” or “step-ins”) if it’s worn by women or children.

The American English “gas” is also unrelated to the British English gas, which you described as fume; it is the short form of gasoline, which is the older name for petrol. So Americans have “gas stations,” not “petrol stations.”

Do you “see a movie” or “watch a movie”? I am confused.

Both “see a movie” and “watch a movie” are perfectly grammatical constructions. However, “see a movie” is more idiomatic when reference is specific to a movie theatre, as in, “My friends and I went to see a movie at the theatre yesterday. “Watch a movie” is appropriate for the home, such as on TV or DVD.

I have seen people on social media calling alleged fraudster Femi Fani Kayode a "yam eater." As an American, I don't understand the implication of this idiom. What do people mean in literal terms when they call someone a "yam eater?"

The short answer is: "yam eater" means a corrupt person; one who steals from the public treasury without any tinge of compunction. The long answer is: Some time ago, former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, in his attempt to underscore his notion of the inevitability of corruption, said if you put a goat and yams in the same room the goat can't help but eat the yams.  In other words, without intending to say so, the former president implied that we can't help but be corrupt if we have the opportunity. Put another way, public treasury plus access/opportunity minus consequence equals corruption. He made no provision for the possibility that humans, unlike goats and other lower animals, have the capacity for restraint if they so want, and that they can resist the temptation to dip their hands in the public till either out of a heightened moral and ethical conscience or a fear of consequences.

Are the following expressions grammatically correct?

1. “About turn.” This phrase is said in a parade of police, etc.

2. “The assembly is dismissed.” This sentence is said to students by teacher(s) to mark the end of assembly and for them to go to classes.

3. “I want to ease myself.” This polite request is said by a student to their teacher in a class to allow them defecate or urinate.

4. “I stand to be corrected.” This sentence is said by someone who is humble to accept corrections on what they say.

1. “About turn” is a legitimate, grammatically correct expression. It is military and paramilitary terminology that means the "act of pivoting 180 degrees, especially in a military formation." It is also called “about face,” and can be used metaphorically to mean a dramatic change of viewpoint or opinion in the opposite direction.

2. "Assembly is dismissed" is grammatically correct. It means the assembly is over. In the US, it is usual for teachers to say "class is dismissed" when class is over. I think it is the same sense being conveyed in "Assembly is dismissed."

3. "I want to ease myself" is unique to Nigerian English, and is unintelligible to native English speakers. Say "May I use the bathroom/restroom/loo? etc." if you're outside Nigeria and want to be understood. In my June 20, 2010 article titled “Top Cutest and Strangest Nigerian English Idioms,” I wrote the following about “ease myself”:

“An alternative version of this idiom—which is completely absent in Nigerian English—is ‘to ease nature.’ It means to urinate or defecate. This is an extremely archaic British English euphemism that has survived in Nigerian English—or perhaps West African English. None of the current meanings of ‘ease’ in modern dictionaries encapsulates this sense of the term. In American and British Standard English, the commonest uses of ‘ease’ are: to move gently or carefully, as in: ‘he eased himself gently into the chair’; lessen pain or discomfort, as in: ‘the drug will ease the pain in your legs’; make easier, as in: ‘you could ease the problem by delegating duties to your subordinates’; lessen the intensity of something, as in: ‘the news eased my conscience.’ There are many more modern uses of ‘ease’ in contemporary dictionaries, but none of them refers to defecating or urinating.”

4. "I stand to be corrected" is grammatically correct and is common in American English but rare in British English.

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