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“Flag off,” “Going Rogue,” “General Secretary”: Q and A On English Usage and Expressions

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi Question: I want to find out if the phrasal verb “flag off” exists in all vari...

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

I want to find out if the phrasal verb “flag off” exists in all varieties of English, as in, “flag off campaign on immunization program.” Or is it just Nigerian English?

The use of “flag off” to mean officially open a ceremonial event is probably old-fashioned British English because it appears only in the varieties of English spoken by former British colonies, notably Nigerian English and Indian English. It’s unknown in American English and in contemporary British English. Nor is it present in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand English.

A search of the database of the Corpus of GlobalWeb-Based English shows that the expression occurs mostly in Nigerian English with 33 matches. Indian English is a close second with 26 matches. It appeared 23 times in Malaysian English, 17 times in Singaporean English, 6 times in Tanzanian English, 5 times in Kenyan English, and so on. I’d call it a non-British Commonwealth English expression.

I have read people describe Aisha Buhari’s recent BBC interview as “going rogue.” Isn’t that an insult since a rogue means a deceitful and unreliable person?

It is true that “rogue” can mean a rascal, but that’s not the word’s only meaning. It can also mean a “pleasantly mischievous person” and can be used as a modifier before a noun to suggest that the noun so modified is unorthodox, such as the expression “rogue states.”

“Going rogue” isn’t exactly an insult; it merely means bucking convention, showing independence in thought and action, or refusing to act an expected script. You won’t find this meaning of the phrase in dictionaries or books of idioms because it isn’t yet well-established. But the expression was popularized, but by no means invented, in American English by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin whose autobiography titled “Going Rogue: An American Life” chronicles what she said was her resistance to conventions in politics.

Given the frequency of the expression in American English, I expect that it will become idiomatic in the next few years.

In our association we use “Secretary General” to refer to one who is third in the hierarchy of ranks in the association and takes care of all the documents of the association. But when I joined another association I discovered that they use “General Secretary” to refer to the same person. Which one is grammatically correct? Is there any context in which both will be correct?

The short answer is, there is really no difference between “Secretary General” and “General Secretary” that is founded on grammatical logic. Some organizations prefer “General Secretary” while others prefer “Secretary General.” However, here are what some experts say are the differences between the two terms:

1. “Secretary General” is used mostly for international organizations, such as the UN, while “General Secretary” is used for national, domestic or regional organizations. But there are several examples that disprove this false dichotomy.

2. “Secretary General” is often the substantive head, i.e. CEO, of an organization while the “General Secretary” is often the head of administration of an organization who is subordinate to a president or someone with ultimate executive powers. But this is not true of all cases. The Communist Party in the former USSR used to be headed by a “General Secretary” who doubled as the president of the country.

Here is the real linguistic difference between the terms: “Secretary General” is a word order that is derived from the structure of Romance languages (such as Latin, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.), and “General Secretary” is derived from the word order of Germanic languages such as German, English, Dutch, etc.

Although English is a Germanic language, it tends to privilege the stylistic and grammatical idiosyncrasies of Romance languages, as a result of the influence of Latin and of Norman French on the language. Latin and French were associated with social and cultural prestige for many years in England. Therefore “Secretary General” appears to be more prestigious than “General Secretary.” Interestingly, the term “Secretary General” came to English by way of Norman French.

Bottom line: the difference between “Secretary General” and "General Secretary" is like the distinction between six and half a dozen. In other words, it's a distinction without a difference.

I was taught that “learned” is the wrong past tense for “learn” and that “learnt” is the only acceptable past tense. In addition, I was told that “learned” is only used for lawyers. What can you say about this?

“Learnt” and “learned” are both correct forms. "Learned" is the preferred past tense of “learn” in American English while “learnt” is the word’s preferred past tense in British English. Both are legitimate.

But note that there is “learned” (pronounced as /Le(R)-nid, / which refers to the idea of being knowledgeable such as lawyers like to think they are), and there is “learned” (pronounced as /le(R)nd, / which is the past tense of learn). Same spelling, different meanings.

I would like to ask two questions:

1. “Gerund” is a grammatical term that usually confuses me. I would like to know if this grammar term (and its examples) belongs to any part of speech or is different.

Like, is “reading” a noun? Or a verb? Or are we going to give it another part of speech: “gerund”?

2. The word “orientalist” also confuses me. It is being used by some Islamic scholars as “a word which denotes people who study Islam but distort its meaning.” However, the dictionary meaning does not reflect this. Which is right?

1. A gerund is a noun. That's the short answer. But it is a noun that is formed from a verb. If I say, “I am reading a book now,” “reading” is used as a verb. But if I say, “Reading is my favorite hobby,” “reading” would be a noun—or a gerund.

2. “Orientalists” study Eastern (or Oriental) cultures in general, of which Islam is a part. Because Orientalism started as an attempt by Westerners to understand the East without actually having a sustained experiential encounter with the cultures they wrote about, they were often inaccurate in their characterizations. So, over time, orientalism came to be associated with inaccurate, armchair, and prejudiced depictions of the Orient (or the East) by Western scholars.

This shift in meaning came after the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said wrote an influential book in 1978 titled Orientalism, where he took Western Orientalist scholars apart. This semantic change may not be reflected in all dictionaries, but it is understood in academia.

I sent my questions for moderation to one English PhD holder thus: “Which of the two ethical perspectives considers intrinsic values?”  The moderator removed the “s” at end of the word “considers.” Is he right?

You are correct and he is wrong. Here is why: You could have phrased the question as, "Which (one) of the two ethical perspectives considers..." and the concord would have been clearer. Your question implies that there are two options, and only one option can apply at a time. That means the verb “considers” should be singular since only one option can be correct at a time.

I had an argument with my colleagues at school over which of the following options is correct. Please help us resolve this: “The principal invited Garba and---to his office.
A) myself
(B) me
(C) I
(D) himself

The answer is B, that is, “me.”  Remember this: Garba and I= we; Garba and me= us.  “The principal invited we” is an odd construction. “The principal invited us” sounds better.

Some British English speakers like to say “myself” to avoid having to use either “I” or “me” because even native English speakers have trouble knowing when to use both pronouns correctly. I predicted in previous articles that the distinction between “you and me” and “you and I” will disappear in the next generation.

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