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“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...

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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