"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: October 2017

Sunday, October 29, 2017

“Pregnant for a man,” “Spinster,” “Thuggery”: Nigerian English Q and A

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Question:
A contributor to your column once observed that it is only Nigerian women who say they are “pregnant for” their husbands or fianc├ęs or boyfriends. What is grammatically wrong with saying that? What do native English speakers say to indicate that a man is responsible for a pregnancy?

Answer:
Well, in response to the observation of the commenter, who lives in London, I wrote:  “Yes, it is true that only Nigerians say a woman is pregnant ‘for a man.’ It’s probably a translation of socio-cultural thoughts from some Nigerian languages, but the Nigerian languages I am familiar with have no equivalent expression for that phrase. I will only add that native English speakers usually say they are…‘pregnant by a man’ to show that the ‘man’ is responsible for the pregnancy. Americans (both wife and husband) now say ‘we are pregnant’!”

Now that I think about it again, it seems to me that the tendency for Nigerian women to say they are “pregnant for” a man is a reflection of their internalization of and capitulation to the dominant patriarchal arrogance in the Nigerian society. The phrase gives ownership of the child to the man— to the exclusion of the woman who carries the baby in her stomach for nine months. Since a child is biologically half of both its father and its mother, it is illogical to say you’re pregnant “for” a man. In fact, only the mother can logically claim ownership of a pregnancy. As the commenter you referred to said, “A woman cannot be pregnant for somebody else except for herself!” Being responsible for a pregnancy doesn’t give a man ownership of it; at best it gives the man part ownership of it. Maybe a surrogate mother can correctly say she’s “pregnant for” another woman or for a couple since the woman or the couple takes ownership of the child after delivery.

Saying you’re “pregnant for” a man is especially problematic because while a child’s maternal connection is often never in contention (except in rare cases of child swapping in hospitals), its paternity is never always indisputably self-evident except through DNA testing or noticeably striking resemblance. That’s why Americans humorously say “Mommy’s baby, daddy’s maybe.”

Question:
I met an American girl online some time ago. In the course of our chat, she told me she wasn’t married, so I said something about her being a “spinster” and she got upset. What’s wrong with calling an unmarried woman a spinster? What am I missing?

Answer:
You’re missing a lot. In contemporary English usage, the word spinster is considered pejorative. Careful speakers and writers avoid it. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “In modern everyday English spinster cannot be used to mean simply 'unmarried woman'; it is now always a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed."

So, by the conventions of modern usage, it’s incorrect to call a young woman in her 20s or 30s—or maybe even early 40s— a “spinster.” The word is reserved only for women who are still unmarried—and childless— by the time they reached or are approaching menopause. 

American English uses “bachelorette” or “bachelor girl” to refer to an unmarried young woman. Note, though, that these terms are absent in British English, although America’s cultural dominance ensures that they are widely understood. “Single” or “single woman” appears to be the preferred term across all native English varieties.

Question:
I am often confused about the right word to use to describe a former student of a school. Is it alumni, alumna or alumnus?

Answer:
Even native English speakers are confused by these words, and it’s because the words are part of the few Latin borrowings in English that have not been Anglicized; they still retain their Latin inflections for gender and number.

A former male student of a school is called an “alumnus.” The plural is “alumni.” A former female student of a school is called an “alumna.” The plural is “alumnae.” However, the male plural, that is, “alumni,” is used as the plural of choice for all former students of a school irrespective of gender. So it is correct to say the “alumni of Bayero University Kano” even though the university has both male and female former students. But it is incorrect to use “alumni” to refer to all-female former students of a school. The correct word is “alumnae.” For example, it is wrong to say “the alumni of Federal Government Girls’ College Bakori.” Replace “alumni” with “alumnae.”

Because of the difficulty in remembering the subtleties of usage between alumnus, alumna, alumni, and alumnae, native English speakers have informally invented “alum” as a catch-all, gender-neutral, singular form for former students, as in, “she is an alum of ABU,” “he is an alum of Barewa College.”

Your question reminded me of a recent comical incident that happened on a Nigerian online discussion forum. A conceited and overly self-assertive Nigerian who lives in the United States wanted to impress members of the discussion forum by claiming that he was “an alumni of Harvard Business School.” Someone pointed out that a person who went to Harvard should know enough to know that “alumni” is a plural noun and can’t be used to refer to a single former student.

Instead of accepting the correction in good faith, the ignorant braggart defended his solecism. So someone on the discussion board sent an email to Harvard Business School to find out if indeed someone by his name graduated from their school. It turned out that he didn’t get a degree from the school; he only attended a one-week workshop organized by Harvard Business School at a city other than where the school is located!

Question:
Someone told me that the word “thuggery” is a uniquely Nigerian English word. The person seems to be right because each time I type the word on Microsoft Word it always gets underlined. Please let us know if the word is indeed exclusive to Nigeria.

Answer:
You are the third person to ask this question. No, it’s not at all true that “thuggery” is an idiosyncratic Nigerian English word. It occurs regularly in native-speaker English, and is derived from “thug,” which means an aggressive or violent criminal. It entered the English language in the 1800s from the Hindi word “thag,” which means a rogue, a thief, a scoundrel, or a cheat. In the past, in India, there existed a professional association of thieves and assassins who murdered their victims by strangulating them. They were called “Thag.” When reference is made to this group, the first letter in the word is always capitalized, as in, “Thug.”

When I checked the British National Corpus, I saw several past and contemporary uses of “thuggery.” Conservative Republican House of Representatives member Michele Bachmann caused a stir in 2013 when she accused President Obama of “thuggery.” “I think we could be on the cusp of seeing civil disobedience — I’m not saying I want civil disobedience — but people aren’t going to take the thuggery of this president much longer. We see thuggery going on in the White House. We’re not going to take it,” she said. “Thug” and “thuggery” have now emerged as code words of choice among American conservatives to refer to black people.

So “thuggery” is by no means an exclusively Nigerian English word. The fact that Microsoft Word underlines it says nothing about its use and acceptance in native-speaker English. Microsoft Word, as you probably know, has a really limited internal dictionary, although its red underlines can often do a good job of alerting us to misspellings and unusual, sometimes misused, words.


Saturday, October 28, 2017

How about the Other “Mainas” in Buhari’s Government?

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

President Muhammadu Buhari is infamously impervious to, and even contemptuous of, public opinion. That’s why his order to fire Abdulrasheed Maina who was surreptitiously reinstated into the civil service and promoted to the next level in spite of weighty allegations of corruption against him was both refreshing and pleasantly surprising.

Of course, the real, far-reaching surprise would be if the president is able to summon the testicular fortitude to fire the people who conspired to pull off this audacious perversion of justice and civil service protocols.

While it’s gratifying that the president has asked that the issue be thoroughly investigated, the fate of previous investigations of corruption involving people close to the president (such as Babachir David Lawal) doesn’t inspire confidence that anything earthshaking will come out of this.

But maybe—just maybe—the president has now had enough and is determined to salvage what remains of his severely diminished reputation through a full-throated attack on the corruption of not just his political opponents but also of his close associates, which is frankly the sincerest test of his will to fight corruption.

The Head of Service of the Federation, the Minister of Interior, the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, and other co-conspirators may yet get the boot. Should that happen, I’d be one of the people whose confidence in the president would be restored. But don't hold your breath.

What’s most significant, though, is the fact that Abdulrasheed Maina is not an aberration in this administration. He is merely an addition to a list that is already distressingly long. Let me recapitulate a few names that are going the rounds in Nigerian social media circles.

A certain Louis Edozien who was fired in 2014 as Executive Director at the Niger Delta Power Holding Company (NDPHC) for failure to produce authentic credentials during an audit was reinstated and promoted to the position of Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Works, Power and Housing in November 2016. NDPHC’s General Manager in charge of audit and compliance by the name of Mrs. Maryam Mohammed who audited Edozien’s credentials and recommended his firing was unjustly fired last year in apparent retaliatory vendetta.

The position of Permanent Secretary is normally the crowning accomplishment of career civil servants, but Edozien isn’t a career civil servant and shouldn’t be a permanent secretary, according to the Daily Trust of October 20, 2017, which said “highly placed officials in the presidency facilitated” this rape of justice. SaharaReporters of October 12, 2017 was blunter: “Mr. Edozien is a friend and business partner to Mr. [Abba] Kyari,” it wrote. “The Chief of Staff's daughter also worked directly under Mr. Edozien.”

Interestingly, although the president reversed the dismissal of Mrs. Mohammed after she wrote to him directly, Abba Kyari allegedly overruled the president and, the woman, who is the mother of orphans, is still unemployed. In many respects, this eclipses the impunity and scandalousness of Maina’s reinstatement and promotion.

There is also the case of a Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court by the name of Ahmed Gambo Saleh who, along with two others, was charged with a N2.2 billion fraud on November 3, 2016. “The defendants are specifically accused of conspiracy, criminal breach of trust and taking gratification by Public officers contrary to Section 10 (a) (i) of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Act 2000 and punishable under the same section of the Act,” according to the Sun of November 4, 2016.

The same Saleh who hasn’t (yet) been absolved from the charges against him was appointed Executive Secretary of the National Judicial Council (NJC) on July 1, 2017. I know it’s technically outside the powers of the president to intervene in issues involving another branch of government, but we all know that the nocturnal bust of the homes of judges, including Supreme Court justices, by Nigeria’s secret police in October 2016 had a stark, unmistakable presidential imprimatur emblazoned all over it.

There is another “Maina” serving as a minister in Buhari’s cabinet. According to the Premium Times of October 26, 2016, Buhari’s Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Usani Usani, “was charged with fraud 15 years ago, after he was indicted in 2000 by the government of Cross River State where he served as a commissioner.” His indictment, the paper added, “is documented in a state government White Paper.” It can’t get any more empirically verifiable than that. Yet the man still serves as a minister in a government that bills itself as an “anti-corruption” government.

The list goes on, but I’ll stop here because of the constraints of space and time. It is ironic that a government with this depth and breadth of love affair with corrupt people has the chutzpah to talk about “fighting corruption.” But the clearest sign that this government is a joke and that it’s “anti-corruption” fight is an even bigger joke came on October 25 when a presidential news release blamed “invisible hands” from the Goodluck Jonathan administration for the Maina embarrassment.
 “[S]ome influential officials loyal to the previous government may have been the invisible hand in the latest scandal that saw the return of Maina to the public service, despite being on the EFCC’s wanted list,” the statement said.

When I first read it on a listserv on Wednesday, I thought it was a spoof and let out a burst of deep, loud, hearty laughter. I said it was impossible for this to be true until I read it in respected traditional news outlets. I give up. The battle has been lost irretrievably.

Buhari’s Commendable Biafra Gesture
News that Buhari has approved the payment of pension to ex-Biafran police officers who served on the rebel side during Nigeria’s 30-month Civil War from 1967 to 1970 is heartening. It is little symbolic gestures like this that nurture national cohesion.

National cohesion won’t magically emerge out of thin air because some leader proclaimed that Nigeria’s unity is “settled” and “non-negotiable”—or that the question of Nigeria’s unity had been settled with some rebel leader at a private meeting. Nation-building is never “settled” and is always in a state of negotiation and renegotiation.

Unity is consciously sowed, watered, and nourished by acts of kindness to the disadvantaged, by equity and justice to all, by consensus-building, by deliberate healing of the existential wounds that naturally emerge in our interactions are constituents of a common national space, and by acknowledging and working to cover our ethnic, religious, regional, and cultural fissures.

If Buhari, from the incipience of his presidency, had offered this sort of olive branch to parts of Nigeria that didn’t vote for him, we won’t have the current immobilizing fissiparity that is threatening to tear down the very foundation of the country. But it’s never too late to do the right thing.

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Sunday, October 22, 2017

“Add weight,” “on my mind”: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage

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

Question:
I had a conversation with a native English speaker sometime ago. In the course of our conversation, I said something about “adding weight,” that is, getting fatter, but he didn’t understand me. It then occurred to me that I was probably speaking Nigerian English, which wasn’t comprehensible to him. How do native English speakers say it?

Answer:
Native English speakers say “gain weight,” not “add weight,” as in, “If you eat a lot of fatty foods, you will gain weight.” You are right that “add weight” is the Nigerian English expression for “gain weight” in Standard English. Alternative Standard English expressions for “gain weight” are “put on weight” and “add pounds” (especially in informal American English). The Nigerian English “add weight” was probably formed on the model of “add pounds.”

Native English speakers use “add weight” often in a metaphorical sense to mean “make stronger,” such as saying, “Buhari’s reluctance to fire his corrupt Secretary to the Government of the Federation adds weight to the argument that his so-called anti-corruption fight is a farce.”

“Add weight” is also used in Standard English to denote physically increasing the heaviness of something by adding extra stuff on it. If someone is carrying a half bucket of water, for instance, and you pour some more water into it, you’re adding weight to their load.

It’s interesting that although Nigerians say “add weight” to mean “gain weight” they don’t say “subtract weight” or “take off weight” to mean “lose weight,” perhaps because the literalness of “subtract” or “take off” is immediately apparent. The antonym of “gain” is “lose” and the antonym of “add” is “subtract.” If you don’t “subtract” or “take off” weight you why do you “add weight”?

Question:
What is the proper way to call a car with two doors or four doors, because people in Nigeria call cars with two doors “one-door-cars.” 

Answer:
I, too, have always wondered why Nigerians refer to two-door cars as “one-door” cars. As far as I know, in no other variety of English is a two-door car called a “one-door” car. So I would say the proper way to call a car with two doors is a two-door car. A four-door-car is also, well, a four-door-car.

Question:
I have a friend in my office who so loves your write-ups that he now even spends his last kobo to buy Daily Trust on Sunday because of your columns. Can you clarify for me conventional/nonconventional uses of "you and I" and “you and me”?

Answer:
 As I wrote in previous articles, the trick to knowing how to use the pronouns correctly is to first know that pronouns are usually categorized into "subjective" pronouns and "objective" pronouns. Subjective pronouns always function as the subject (that is, main doer of action) in a sentence. Examples: I, we, they, he, she. "Objective" pronouns, on the other hand, always function as the object (that is, recipient of action) in a sentence. Examples: me, us, them, him, her.

So if you look at a sentence and can determine its subject and object, you can pretty much tell when "I" and "me" are used wrongly. Look at this sentence, for instance: “He said the bag was for you and I.” That sentence is wrong because "he" is already the subject of the sentence. The "I" in the sentence should be "me" because "me" is the recipient of an action, that is, it is the object of the sentence.

 If that explanation isn’t helpful, always remember that “you and me” is almost always interchangeable with “us” while “you and I” is almost always interchangeable with “we.”

Question:
Between “on my mind” and “in my mind” which is grammatically correct?

Answer:
"On my mind" and "in my mind" are both correct depending on the context. "On my mind" means something is bothering you. Example: “The plight of the poor is on my mind.” "In my mind," on the other hand, means something resides in your imagination. Example: "I have a picture in my mind of an idyllic village in the deserts of the Sahara.”

Question:
Is it grammatically correct to say “if he were here?” What of “if he was here”?

Answer:
I wrote about this in a previous article. Here is what I said: “There is still a fierce battle among grammarians about the appropriateness of these phrases. In grammar, “if I were” is referred to as being in the “subjunctive mood.” The subjective verb represents the form of a verb used to represent an act or a state that has not happened and has no likelihood of happening but that has nevertheless been imagined. For instance, when Beyonce sang “If I were a boy,” she clearly implied that she was actually not a boy nor could she be one, but imagined herself as one nonetheless. Semantic purists insist that on occasions such as this, “if I were” is the only acceptable expression.

“But the subjunctive verb, which was prevalent in Middle English (i.e. from about 1100 to 1450), is now obsolete. It’s only in the expression “if I were” that it has endured in modern English. Increasingly, however, people, especially young people in both Britain and America, are replacing “if I were” with “if I was,” although “if I was” used to be considered uneducated English. (For recent notable examples of the use of “if I was” in popular hit songs, refer to Far East Movement’s “If I was you” and Liza Minnelli’s “If there was love”). It is inevitable that “if I were” will ultimately die and be replaced with “If I was.” But, for now, my advice is this: use “if I were” in formal contexts and “if I was” in informal contexts.

Question
I want some explanation on this issue: The word “welcome” is an irregular verb but I see that both the BBC and CNN sometimes use it as if it were a regular verb.

Answer:
“Welcome" is a regular verb. Its present tense is "welcome," its past tense is "welcomed," and its participle is "welcomed." But when "welcome" is used as an adjective (that is, when it means "giving pleasure or satisfaction or received with pleasure or freely granted", as in: "your suggestions are welcome"), it does not have a "d" at the end. That is, it would be wrong to write "your suggestions are welcomed." So CNN and BBC are right to use "welcome" as a regular verb.

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

World Bank, Buhari, and Presidential Subnationalism

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim, in a news conference on October 12, reported President Muhammadu Buhari as having said the World Bank should “shift our focus to the northern regions of Nigeria.” Several commentators, particularly from the South, said the revelation provided evidence of the president’s prejudicial northern subnationalism. The president’s defenders, on the other hand, said he actually meant the “northeast.”

 Rather strangely, both the president’s critics and his defenders are right. Here is what I mean.

According to the transcript of the conference on the World Bank’s website, the question that elicited Kim’s response was, “what is the World Bank doing to support those ravaged in the northeastern part of Nigeria by the Boko Haram terrorists?” In other words, the questioner specifically wanted to know what the World Bank was doing about northeastern Nigeria in light of the devastation that has been wrought upon the region by years of Boko Haram insurgency.

It's therefore not unreasonable to assume that the World Bank chief meant that the president told him to focus attention on the northeast. Most non-Nigerians have no awareness of, or interest in, our arbitrary cartographic nomenclatures such as “northeast,” “northcentral,” “northwest,” etc., although the World Bank’ chief’s reference to “the northern regions [note the plural] of Nigeria” at best complicates and at worst invalidates my observation.

But since we didn’t hear these words directly from Buhari’s mouth, it’s sensible to believe his spokesperson who said the president meant the northeast, which every Nigerian agrees is in desperate need of a massive infrastructural renewal. Plus, saying “focus” should be put in one part of the country doesn’t necessarily imply an order to exclude other parts of the country. In any event, a breakdown of the World Bank’s projects in Nigeria shows that the South isn’t excluded.

However, it would be escapist, even dishonest, to ignore the fact that Buhari’s personal politics and symbolic gestures both before he became president and now that he is president conduce to the notion that he is an unapologetic provincial chauvinist. Before he was elected president, he made no pretense to being anything other than a “northern” subnationalist, which has no precedent for a former or incumbent Nigerian president or head of state, at least in public utterances.

Former president Goodluck Jonathan is an exception here. He once publicly defended the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta’s self-professed terrorism against Nigeria when it detonated two bombs in Abuja that killed 12 people and injured 17 others on October 1, 2010. Although MEND’s Jomo Gbomo sent out an email to the news media warning of the attack— and actually claimed responsibility for it after the fact—Jonathan said MEND couldn’t be responsible for the bomb attack because it would not sabotage the administration of a fellow Niger Deltan like him.

 “We know those behind the attack and the persons sponsoring them,” he said. “They are terrorists, not MEND. The name of MEND that operates in Niger Delta was only used. I grew up in the Niger Delta, so nobody can claim to know Niger Delta than [sic] myself, because I am from Niger Delta.” But he forgot that Niger Delta militants bombed his house in his hometown of Otueke on May 16, 2007 in spite of his being a Niger Deltan. Jonathan’s defense of Niger Delta terrorists out of subnationalist solidarity caused me to write a caustic column on October 16, 2010 titled “A MENDacious President.”

Like Jonathan, Buhari also had his own moment of subnationalist solidarity with Boko Haram terrorists. In June 2013, Buhari told Liberty Radio in Kaduna that the sustained military assault on Boko Haram insurgents while Niger Delta militants were being mollycoddled by the government through “amnesty” was unfair to the “north.”

And, although, he recanted and later redeemed himself after his infamous “97%” versus “5%” gaffe in Washington, D.C., it’s nonetheless legitimate to contend that it was a Freudian slip that betrayed his genuine thoughts, especially in light of the pattern of his appointments, which I once characterized as undisguisedly Arewacentric.

There are other symbolic miscues that feed the notion of Buhari’s provincial particularism. For instance, when he canceled his planned visits to the Niger Delta and to Lagos, he didn’t send personal apologies to the people. But when he canceled his visit to Bauchi, he recorded a video apology in Hausa to the people of Bauchi State. Again, during his sick leave in London, he recorded a personal audio sallah message only for Hausa-speaking Muslims. Yoruba, Auchi, non-Hausa-speaking northern Muslims, etc. were excluded. He picked and chose even among Muslims.

Buhari’s interpersonal discomfort with, and perhaps contempt for, Nigerians who are different from him—often expressed through awkward snubs and linguistic exclusivism—go way back. On page 512 of Ambassador Olusola Sanu’s 2016 autobiography titled Audacity on the Bound: A Diplomatic Odyssey, for instance, we encounter this trait:

“I was asked by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs… to accompany Major-General Buhari on a trip to West Germany when he was Petroleum Minister in 1978,” he wrote. “During the flight, to and fro, [he] did not say a word to me even when we sat side by side in the first class compartment of the plane. When we got to Germany and went to the Nigerian Ambassador’s residence, [he] spoke entirely in Hausa throughout with the Ambassador-in-post. He did not speak to me throughout the trip. I was deeply hurt and disappointed.”

Interestingly, Ambassador Sanu actively supported Buhari in 2015, and probably still does. “Time is a great healer and I bear Buhari no malice,” he wrote, pointing out that, “I believe Buhari is now a changed man and Nigeria in decline is in need of disciplined, honest, focused and purposeful leadership to turn it around.” Well, you be the judge.

Now, let me be clear: there is immense merit in speaking our native languages. I actually applaud people of President Buhari’s political and symbolic stature who show pride in their native languages by speaking it anywhere without apology. But that’s not the issue here. In a complex and plural country that is torn by the push and pull of competing cultural, ethnic, and linguistic fissures such as Nigeria, there are moments when linguistic subnationalism from leaders can become fodder for untoward fissiparity.

Buhari’s insularity may be a consequence of his limited education and socialization outside his comfort zone, but a country whose political leaders perpetually proclaim that their country’s unity is “settled and non-negotiable” needs a leader who consciously works to unite the fissiparous tendencies in the country; who puts nationalism above subnationalism; who recognizes that to favor one’s own people is an instinctive impulse that is effortless, but that what requires effort is the capacity to rise superior to this base temptation and to be dispassionate, cosmopolitan, and fair to all.

So while Buhari most probably told the World Bank to focus on the northeast, which is defensible, his history of ethno-regional chauvinism provides grounds for people to be suspicious of his utterances, even silences, and motives.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

CBN’s Aisha Ahmad, Misogynistic Bullying, and Religious Hypocrisy

By Farooq Kperogi, Ph.D.

At least two categories of (male) Nigerian social media denizens were disconcerted by the appointment of a Mrs. Aisha Ahmad as one the Central Bank of Nigeria’s four deputy governors. The first group said she is unqualified because her promotion as Executive Director by her bank was suspiciously co-extensive with her appointment as CBN’s deputy governor, suggesting that her promotion was done in anticipation— or as a direct consequence— of her appointment.

To lend credibility to their claims, they falsely said being Executive Director of a bank is a prerequisite for appointment to the position of CBN deputy governor, and that it is this requirement that inspired her rapid promotion. They also said her professional qualifications and experiences are ill-suited to the position of deputy governor in charge of economic policy.

The second group, made up of mostly northern Muslim men, said she was unworthy of her position—wait for it— because her formal western attire doesn’t conform to the Islamic dress code for Muslim women! One widely shared Facebook status update, in fact, defamed her as a “sex worker” on account of her dressing. That’s a prima facie case of libel.

While these groups are animated by different impulses, they are united by a common, gnawing patriarchal arrogance and unease with successful, high-flying professional women. I can bet my bottom dollar that had she been an older man, news of her appointment won’t even show up on Nigerian social media radar. As the father of three girls—northern Nigerian Muslim girls like Mrs. Ahmad, I might add—I have a personal and emotional investment in confronting and fighting the culture of misogynistic bullying of successful women.

So let’s examine the first group’s assertions. An online newspaper called TheCable, in an October 9 story titled “FACT CHECK: Is Aishah Ahmad really qualified to be CBN deputy-governor?” exploded all the claims of the first group. It pointed out, for instance, that Section 8 (1) of the CBN Act requires only that people appointed as deputy governors be “persons of recognised financial experience.”

 It does not require that bankers appointed to deputy governorship of the CBN be executive directors. “TheCable discovered that Suleiman Barau, currently deputy-governor (corporate services), was not an ED before his appointment in 2007,” the paper wrote. “His highest banking position was general manager… at the now defunct FSB International Bank Plc.”

The paper also mentioned my friend Kingsley Moghalu who became CBN deputy governor without any prior banking experience. Moghalu himself told me sometime ago that former CBN governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (now Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II) single-handedly recommended him for the job.

It’s also preposterous to argue that someone with a 20-year experience in the finance industry isn’t fit to supervise the CBN’s economic policy. That charge is not even worthy of engagement. While it’s true that Mrs. Ahmad isn’t the most qualified person for the job, she’s sure as hell qualified for it.

The fulmination of the second group is even more worrying because it merely scratches the surface of a deep, abiding problem in our region, which is the noxious fusion of disabling religious intolerance, literalism, and exhibitionism.

Religion in the Muslim north revolves around (1.) a sick, prurient obsession with the female body under the cover of religious decency, (2.) exhibitionistic preening of the rituals of religiosity without a care for ethics, truth, honesty, or kindness, and (3.) identity politics wrapped in and sanctified by religion.

You can lie, cheat, murder, rape, steal, and generally be a monster of moral perversion and you won‘t attract the condemnation of self-appointed guardians of religious morality as long as you observe the communal rituals of religiosity and mouth off familiar, stereotyped religious idioms. That’s why 200 tons of date fruits donated by Saudi Arabia were stolen and sold (during Ramadan!) by Muslims and there was not a whimper from people who get in a tizzy when they see a woman—however virtuous she may be—unclad in a hijab.

In fact, a three-term governor and serving senator from Yobe State (who introduced Sharia in his state!) was recently caught almost literally pants down—and with irrefutable videographic corroboration, too— in a threesome with two women who are not his wives in a cheap, grubby brothel. There was no outrage from the self-anointed moral police. On the contrary, most of them defended the senator’s right to privacy, and cautioned against exposing a fellow Muslim to ridicule. Between being unclad in a hijab and engaging in adultery—and being impenitent about it when caught, as the senator was—which is worthier of moral outrage?

On the other hand, you can be the very apotheosis of justice, truth, probity, honesty, compassion, etc., but if you don’t “perform” religiosity through your sartorial choices and through your public utterances, you’re the devil himself. In other words, religion is more about form than content, more about appearance than substance, more about cold structures than essence, and more about public performance of group identity than about the internalization and performance of genuine piety.

Every Muslim woman who falls short of the standards of sartorial modesty enshrined in Islam is invariably described as being “naked” and condemned as a “prostitute.” Such a woman’s moral character is irrelevant as long as she violates—or is thought to violate— this sacred sartorial code. But she can be morally debauched and be the proverb for cruelty, and she would be celebrated (or at least be allowed to live in peace) as long as she wears a hijab, knows her “place,” performs the identity rituals expected of her, and doesn’t make a public show of her debauchery. In other words, a Muslim woman’s entire worth is measured by her dressing.

Mufti Ismail Menk had these kinds of people in mind when he said, “When you see a female dressed in a manner that is unacceptable Islamically, do not for a moment think that she is lower than you spiritually. If you do that, you are lower than her. Believe me, that is the teaching of your religion. She might have a link with her Creator that you do not know about. She might have a heart that is tons better than yours. She might have one weakness that is outward, and you have 50 weaknesses that are hidden.”

The self-proclaimed male moral police who are fixated with what Muslim women wear and don’t wear won’t admit that if they, too, are judged by the standards and requirements of the religion they purport to defend they’d all come up short. All of us would. Most of them don’t lower their gaze when they encounter women (which is precisely why they pervertedly proclaim the “nakedness” of clothed women and assume them to be “sex workers”), they patronize banks that traffic in riba, have pre- and extra-marital sexual liaisons, etc. Why do they think their own transgressions are more tolerable and more defensible than a Muslim woman's choice to not wear a hijab?

This is not a repudiation of the dress code prescribed for women in Islam. It’s just an admission of the fact that we’re all imperfect beings. We all have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. It’s unfair to estimate people’s entire worth by just one weakness.

Mrs. Ahmad’s western attire might simply be what I like to call protective sartorial mimicry, that is, the survivalist instinct that causes us to dress in ways that help us to blend in with our immediate environments. Maybe she doesn’t even dress that way outside her professional circles. Most importantly, though, it’s not our place to sit in judgement upon the personal choices of a 40-year-old wife and mother who is almost at the pinnacle of her career.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Semantic Bleaching in English

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Just like skin bleaching is the chemically induced lessening of the melanin of a dark or brown person’s skin, semantic bleaching occurs when a word loses or lessens its original meaning and becomes an intensifier, that is, a word that has no meaning except to lend emphasis to the word it modifies. The most common intensifier in everyday speech is “very.” The word does nothing more than add intensity to what we say. If I say, for instance, that “there were very many people at the party,” I’ve merely used “very” for emphasis, and nothing more.

So almost all intensifiers are semantically bleached words. Linguists call them semantically bleached because they often represent a diminution of their original meaning in the service of adding emphasis to the words they modify. Let’s take the word “very” as an example. The word originally meant “true,” and it still does in some contexts. In fact, in the 13th century, the English word for “true,” according to Dictionary.com, was “verai” (which was borrowed from Norman French), from where it evolved to “very.” It shares lexical ancestry with “verily,” “verisimilitude,” “veracity,” etc. which all denote truthfulness. Although “very” still signifies “truth” in many uses, we often don’t think of “truth” when we say things like, “That’s so not very nice of you.”

Another common semantically bleached intensifier is “really.” “Really” originally means “in accordance with truth, fact, or reality,” that is, observable realness as opposed to imagination or fantasy. But “really” has now been thoroughly semantically bleached and is now just used for emphasis, such as when someone says, “Although he is not alone, I think he really feels lonely.” The fact of someone feeling “lonely” can’t be proved in reality by someone who doesn’t have a direct experience of the feeling. Although the word’s original sense still endures in everyday language, its semantically bleached version is now more popular.

Other routinely semantically bleached words are “actually,” “definitely,” “ultimately,” “wonderful,” “awesome,” “amazing,” “insanely” (as in, “insanely busy”), “outrageously” (as in, “outrageously cheap”), “literally,” (as in, “he literally stole the country blind”), “awfully” (as in, “an awfully great performance”), “totally,” “crazy,” “incredibly.”

Perhaps the newest semantically bleached word in Nigerian English is “fantastically,” which came to us after former British Prime Minister David Cameron called Nigeria and Afghanistan “fantastically corrupt,” where “fantastically” merely intensifies “corrupt.”

My reflection on semantic bleaching recalls a May 11, 2011 column I wrote titled, “Superlative Expressions in American English.” See it below:

Semantic Bleaching in American English
A favorite catchphrase Texans cherish about their state is: “everything is bigger in Texas.” Given Americans’ extravagant fondness for exaggerations, intensification, and superlative expressions, they should probably have a shamelessly immodest catchphrase for the whole nation that says, “Everything is biggest in America.”

Americans are the masters of superlatives and intensification. I have never seen a people whose conversational language is so full of intentional and unintentional exaggerations as Americans.
In grammar, a superlative is the form of an adjective or an adverb that indicates its highest level or degree. In the gradation of the levels or degrees of adjectives or adverbs, it’s usual to talk of the base, comparative, and superlative degrees. English superlatives are normally created with the suffix “est” (e.g. wealthiest, strongest) or the word “most” (e.g. most recent, most beautiful). But some words are by nature superlative and require no suffix or "most" to indicate their degree. Examples: absolute, favorite, unique, perfect, etc. Therefore, it would be superfluous (or, as grammarians say it, pleonastic) to write or say "most absolute," "most unique," etc.

So superlative expressions are boastful, hyperbolic expressions that sometimes have no literal relationship with the reality they purport to describe. In this essay, I identify the most common superlative expressions I’ve encountered in American English.

In contemporary American English, instead of simply saying something like “it’s really nice,” young Americans say “it totally rocks!” The “best experience” becomes “the absolute best experience ever.” Kids no longer just have “best friends”; they now have “Best Friends Forever.” There is even an initialism for it: BFF. (An initialism, also called an alphabetism, is an abbreviation made up of first letters of words or syllables, each pronounced separately. E.g. HIV, BFF, CEO). My daughter changes her BFFs every other week! “Forever” now has an expiration date.

On American TV it's now common to hear teenagers use “bestest” (a nonstandard word) to heighten the sense that the superlative adjective “best” conveys, as in: “we had the bestest party ever!” “Baddest” is another nonstandard superlative in American youth lingo. The word has been a part of African-American vernacular English (or Ebonics) for a long time. It’s now fully integrated into mainstream, mostly youth, conversational English. But “bad” here is not the absence of good. It is, on the contrary, the surfeit of goodness or “kewlness” (kewlness is derived from “kewl,” which is the nonstandard slang term for “cool,” i.e., fashionable, excellent, or socially adept) or greatness. So “the baddest guy in town” in the language of the American youth subculture means the best or greatest guy.

The intensifier “very” is now considered tame and lame in American conversational English. It has effectively been replaced with “super.” People are no longer just “very excited”; they are “super excited.” It’s no longer common to hear people being described as “very smart”; they are “super smart.” An alternative intensifier is “uber,” which is borrowed from German. It means extreme or outstanding, as in, “uber-hero,” “uber-smart professor,” etc.

 But it appears that “super” has also exhausted its intensifying elasticity. It is now being replaced with “super-duper.” It’s now typical to hear Americans say they are “super-duper excited” or that they have eaten “super-duper burgers.”

Perfect. In America, everything is “perfect.” During Christmas, New Year, Mother’s Day, etc. people get “perfect gifts” for their loved ones. When appointment times work well, it’s “perfect timing.” Things are not just “acceptable”; they are “perfectly acceptable.” President Obama once described high-flying young country singer Taylor Swift as a “perfectly nice girl.” She is not just nice; she is perfectly nice. Does that mean she has no blemish of any sort? Of course no. It only means “perfect” has lost touch with its original meaning.

When people respond to a question in the affirmative, a simple “yes” is no longer sufficient. They say “absolutely!” The response to a question like “did you have a good time there?” would more likely be “absolutely!” than the hitherto conventional “yes, I did.”

In America, routine, quotidian events are habitually called “one-of-a-kind.” On my daughter’s kid TV, programs are almost always described as “one-of-a-kind TV event.”

And “best ever” has become the default phrase for just about anything. My daughter calls me “the best dad ever” each time I give her a treat. Her “best day ever” is any day she has lots of fun. Now, Americans are graduating from “ever” to “ever ever.” An American friend of mine described one of my Facebook pictures as “my most favorite picture of you ever ever”! Well, “favorite” is itself a superlative word that does not admit of any intensifier in standard grammar. To add "most" and “ever ever” to “favorite” seems to me like imposing an unbearably excessive burden on my poor little picture!

 If an American hates this article, he would probably call it the “worst article ever written article on American fondness for superlatives.” If she is a teenager and likes it, she might call it the “bestest written article on American fondness for superlatives ever ever.”

The American fascination with exaggeration and superlative language is probably the consequence of the ubiquity of advertising in American life. Advertising traditionally engages in hyperbole, deliberate overstatement, and extravagant exaggeration. Now that advertising has become more omnipresent and more intrusive than ever before (this is no American superlative, I swear!) in American life, it is logical that it would influence their everyday language.

 Or it could very well be the linguistic evidence of the over-sized image Americans cherish about themselves. When you’re used to being the world’s number one in most things, it’s inevitable that it will reflect in your language sooner or later.

But the effect of all this is that it has blurred the dividing line between fact and fiction in everyday American life. I am now dubious of many claims here. Everything here is the “world’s biggest.” For instance, Atlanta’s international airport is called the “world’s biggest and busiest airport.” Well, it turns out that the claim is not exactly accurate. In terms of the number of passengers that pass through it annually, it is indeed the world’s busiest airport. But in terms of land mass, there are much bigger airports in the world.

A modestly sized farmer’s market here in Atlanta has also been touted as “the world’s biggest farmer’s market.” If it indeed is, then farmers’ markets elsewhere in the world must be really tiny.

Superlatives certainly make language colorful, but I worry that their untrammeled profusion in everyday speech has the potential to desensitize us to actually exceptional things around us.

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