Sunday, October 28, 2018

Some Guidance on the Use of the Prepositions “on” and “in”

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

Several readers have asked me to give them guidance on when it is proper to use the locational prepositions “in” and “on” in certain fixed expressions. They asked to know the difference between “in bed” and “on the bed,” between “in the train” and “on the train,” between “in the street” and “on the street,” between “in the bus” and “on the bus,” between "on the airplane" and "in the airplane," etc. This week’s column answers these questions.

1. “In bed” versus “on the bed.”  “In bed” is the conventional expression in Standard English to indicate that one is sleeping or is about to sleep, as in, “By 8:30 p.m. all the children should be in bed.”  The expression can also mean sexual activity, as in, “He is good in bed.” “In bed with” is also used metaphorically to indicate undesirable, often conspiratorial, closeness, as in, “Journalists are in bed with corrupt politicians.”

 “On the bed,” on the other hand, merely indicates one’s location in relation to a bed. (Note that, unlike “in bed,” you can’t dispense with the definite article “the” in the expression “on the bed.”) For instance, someone can sit “on the bed” or “lie on the bed,” which merely indicates the person’s position on the bed. It doesn’t convey the sense that the person is sleeping or is about to sleep.

 In sum, use “in bed” for sleeping, sexual activity, and undesirable closeness, and “on the bed” to convey the sense of being on top of the blankets of a bed— with no intention to sleep.

2. “In the street” versus “on the street.” The difference between “in the street” and “on the street” isn’t as straightforward as that between “in bed” and “on the bed.” Many native speakers interchange the expressions. But here is what the sensitive user of the language needs to know.

“In the street” is an older, more established expression than “on the street” when reference is to the roads and public places of a village, town, or city in the abstract sense, as in, “I like to go for a walk in the street every weekend.” In this example, “street” isn’t specific to any identifiable public road. “On the street” tends to be appropriate for occasions when the specific location of a street is important, as in, “we live on the same street.” 

The truth, though, is that in modern usage, both expressions can be, and often are, used in place of the other. My own preference is “in the street.”  

How about the idiom “man in the street” to represent the hypothetical everyday person who is a non-expert? Should it be “man on the street”? Well, both expressions are now usually interchanged in popular usage, and there is no reason to chafe at this. In fact, many prestigious dictionaries acknowledge the interchangeability of the expressions. It helps to know, though, that “man in the street” is the older form of the expression, and current usage still prefers it to “man on the street.”  A search on Google brought nearly 1.5billion hits for “man in the street” but only 547 million hits for “man on the street.” 

However, evidence from the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows strong regional and dialectal variations in the use of these expressions.  “Man in the street” enjoys more popularity and acceptance than “man on the street” in British English. I found only five hits for “man on the street” in the British National Corpus. Of the five hits, only one usage is idiomatic. The only other idiomatic usage puts it in quotation marks and makes it clear that it’s an American usage (“I wish a prominent member of the American print media would present an open unbiased, informative ‘Man on the street’ issue, such as you did.”) The three other uses refer to a man on a specific street.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English shows a preference for “man on the street” but not by the wide margin we saw between “man in the street” and “man on the street” in the British National Corpus. It seems safe to say that “man on the street” first appeared in American English and hasn’t quite become popular in British English.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says the first recorded use of “man in the street” to mean the ordinary person dates back to 1831. “Man on the street,” on the hand, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says, dates back to only 1926.

It is also important to note that “on the streets” (note the plural) means being homeless (as in, “if you don’t pay your rent you will be on the streets”) or working as a prostitute (as in, “The government should devise policies to protect the girls on the streets in our cities.”)

“On the street” (note that there is no plural) can also mean “without a job, unemployed, as in ‘After she lost her job at the ministry she was on the street for three years,’” especially in American English. The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary says this idiom is attested from the “first half of 1900s.”

3. “On the train” versus “in the train.” When you’re traveling by means of a train, you say you’re “on the train.” That’s the fixed, conventional expression to use in all native varieties of English. Being “in the train” indicates your position in relation to the train (that is, that you’re inside it), not the fact of your traveling by it. 

Note that this is different from the idiomatic expression “in the train of,” which is synonymous with “in the wake of,” as in, “many people were rendered homeless in the train of the massive flood.” Also note that “in train” is another fixed phrase that means “well-organized” or “in progress,” as in, “The report of the recently concluded national conference is in train.”

In short, in transportational contexts, “on the train” is the preferred expression. 

4. “On the bus” versus “in the bus.” The usage rules here are similar to the preceding one. It should be “on the bus” when you use the expression in a transportational context. “In the bus” is never appropriate when used in relation to transportation. It may only be used to show location, such as being inside the bus.

You also you get “on an airplane,” not “in an airplane.” The same rule applies to bicycle. You ride “on a bicycle.”

5. “In the car” versus “on the car.” Here the rule is reversed. You are “in a car” if you’re traveling by it. When you’re “on a car,” it means you’re on top of it. You also get “in a taxi,” not “on a taxi.”

A good way to help the reader remember when it’s appropriate to use “in” or “on” in relation to a means of transportation is to note the prepositions we use to get out of the means of transportation. You get “out” of a car. So you get “in” it. You get “off” a train. So you get “on” it. We say “in and out” but “on and off.”

Some Thoughts on Prepositions                        
If this column isn’t very helpful in its differentiation of “on” and “in,” it’s because English prepositions are notoriously tricky and arbitrary. You can’t master their usage by holding on to a universal syntactic logic. You just need to learn their usage through reading good books and articles or by listening to the speech patterns of native speakers. 

In some cases, prepositional usage can be fluid, permissive, and inflected by dialectal choices (such as is the case with “in the street” and “on the street”), but in other contexts their usage is fixed in meaning and context (such as in the use of “on” or “in” in relation to transportational activities).

Related Articles:
Politics of Grammar Column

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Kwara PDP’s Kemi Adeosun Moment

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

Premium Times reported on October 22, 2018 that Razak Atunwa, the Kwara State PDP governorship candidate in next year’s election, not only failed to participate in the mandatory National Youth Service Corps scheme, he also forged a discharge certificate to conceal this fact. The forged NYSC certificate, according to the Premium Times, had with it “a notarised affidavit sworn at the Kwara State High Court in Ilorin on September 10.” That’s three offenses in one: intentional evasion of national service, forgery, and perjury.

This is eerily reminiscent of former Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun’s NYSC dodging and forgery. But Atunwa’s is worse than Adeosun’s for at least two reasons. First, although Atunwa got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the UK, he was born in Nigeria and therefore had no room for plausible deniability for avoiding the national youth service. He also has no reason not to know that it’s illegal to take any public or private sector employment in Nigeria without first presenting evidence of participation in the NYSC scheme, especially because he is a lawyer.

Second, Premium Times’ report showed that Atunwa forged the NYSC discharge certificate after the outrage that Kemi Adeosun’s forgery excited in the nation. That’s unnervingly brazen. But, more than anything, it bespeaks the man’s questionable moral character and propensity for audacious fraud.

It’s troubling that Atunwa was at various times a commissioner in Kwara State and was even a speaker of the Kwara State House of Assembly. He is currently a member of the House of Representatives and chair of its Committee on Justice. The act that established the NYSC states that, “[…] it is illegal to hire a person who graduated but failed to make himself or herself available to serve, or falsify any document to the effect that he or she has served or exempted from serving.”

Atunwa, like Adeosun, is evidently a malefactor who should not only serve jail time but should pay restitution for all the time he was illegally employed in Nigeria since his return from the UK. How could PDP in Kwara pass over astute, virile, not to mention “loyal,” politicians like former APC spokesperson Bolaji Abdullahi and House of Reps member Zakari Mohammed for a common crook like Atunwa who has intentionally contravened the law he said he studied and practiced?

In order to get around his forgery, it is rumored that Atunwa plans to present only his school certificate to INEC and to disclaim possession of a bachelor’s degree since a secondary school certificate is the minimum qualification required to be governor. But how will he erase previous claims to being a lawyer, to having graduated from the University of East London for his law degree and from the University of London for his master’s degree? How would he explain away submitting a forged NYSC discharge certificate to the PDP under oath?

Sadly, Atunwa may get away with this because others before him have. Kemi Adeosun was helped by the government to escape to London and evade justice. Minister of Communication Adebayo Shittu, who has admitted to not participating in the NYSC scheme on the basis of which the APC disqualified him from running for governor of his state, is still a minister. Okoi Obono-Obla, Special Assistant to the President on Prosecutions and Head of Special Investigation Panel for Recovery of Public Property, who fudged a school certificate—which, in all probability, belonged to his dead relative—to gain admission to study law at the University of Jos still has his job in spite of the public disclosure of this fact.

The fact of being in an opposition party might cause our overtly partisan law enforcement agents to hound Atunwa, as in being done to Senator Adeleke, but as someone from Kwara State, I am alarmed that a contemptibly unabashed moral cripple like Atunwa is in danger of becoming the governor of my state.

Senator Shehu Sani's Comeuppance
Senator Shehu Sani captured the imagination of Nigerians with his penetratingly coruscating wit against the incompetence, duplicity, and inefficiency of the APC-led federal government. We learned from Governor Nasir El-Rufai's leaked memo to President Buhari that the president was so anguished by Sani's piercing rhetorical punches against him that he ordered that he be recalled. Although the presidency has denied this, the denial was weak and implausible.

But Shehu Sani suddenly transmogrified into a forceful defender of the same President Buhari that he viciously pilloried and satirized with his inimitable verbal darts. He also betrayed his colleagues with whom he stood up to Buhari's tyranny because APC’s cantankerous and emotionally unstable chairman promised him an “automatic ticket.” Now, the APC Kaduna Central senatorial ticket for whose sake he betrayed both himself and his colleagues has slipped away from him irretrievably. He is now hoisting the flag of a practically dead PRP.

Sani wanted to simultaneously run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. That doesn't always end well. Now he is, as the English would say, hoist with his own petard, that is, he's been politically blown to shreds by his shameless duplicity and opportunism.

Misty-eyed Gratitude to Media Trust
Since my wife’s death in a car crash in June 2010, the management of Daily Trust, where she worked as Assistant Editor until her death, keeps her memory alive in our children and me in ways they probably don’t realize.

The company has a policy to give yearly financial assistance to the children of its deceased staff. For the last past seven years, every time I get an email from the company notifying me that money has been deposited into my account for my children’s education, I get misty-eyed. I know of no place of work where special funds are set aside to assist children of deceased staff members.

It is the symbolism of the gesture, more than the money itself, that gratifies, impresses, and touches me. Media Trust has shown itself to be a company that cherishes its workers both in life and in death. When I worked at the Trust, where I met my late wife, Zainab, I never ceased to be impressed by the management’s commitment to the welfare of its workers.

 Apart from our regular salaries, which were light-years above the industry standard, we used to receive extra money every quarter from the excess profit the company made from advertising—in addition to being paid “13th month” salaries every December.

In 1998 when I started work with Trust, graduate salaries in Nigeria were N3,500 at the federal level and N2,500 in most states. In Trust, graduates were paid N11,000. When Obasanjo increased the federal minimum wage to N18,000, our salaries at Trust more than tripled— without any prompting from workers. And the quarterly extra cash from advert sales didn’t stop. Nor did the “13th month.”

I have chosen to share this here because I realize that it’s too easy to overlook or take for granted goodness and graciousness. As a culture, we also have a tendency to celebrate good deeds and good people only when they are no more.

My 10-year-old daughter and my 8-year-old son have no recollections of their mother, and my 14-year-old daughter’s memory of her is hazy, but every year I tell them their mother’s former place of work has sent money to them to help with their school, I sense the depth of joy they feel.

As my 14-year-old daughter said a few days ago, the yearly financial assistance from Media Trust indicates that their mother worked in a place that “valued her and respects her memory.” I am certain that this sentiment is shared by all living family members of deceased Media Trust staff. Thank you, Media Trust!

Sunday, October 21, 2018

How Buhari is Changing Nigerian English (II)

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

9.  “Grass cutter.” Native English speakers might think this is an alternative name for a lawn mower, and people who are inclined to animal husbandry might think it refers to the colloquial name for African brush-tailed porcupine. Well, it actually refers to Nigeria’s former Secretary to the Government of the Federation Babachir David Lawal who spent more than N200 million naira to cut grass, or “invasive plant species,” for internally displaced Boko Haram victims, many of whom have died of malnutrition and hunger.

 “Grass-cutter” has now become the lexical stand-in for an audaciously corrupt person who is nonetheless shielded from the consequences of his corruption by his pretend “anti-corruption” boss. It has replaced “yam eater” as the term of preference for a corrupt person. In my June 5, 2016 column, an American who monitors Nigerian English usage on social media asked me what “yam eater” meant. Here was my response:

“‘Yam eater’ means a corrupt person; one who steals from the public treasury without any tinge of compunction…. 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.”

“Grass cutter” and “yam eater” are near synonyms, but grass cutter is more contemporary.

10. “Change.” “Change” was the Buhari government’s campaign slogan in 2015. But the deep disillusionment that the down-the-line failure and incompetence of the government has actuated has caused millions of Nigerians to redraw the semantic contours of the word.

A fuller examination of the semantic transformation of “change” can be found in my September 25, 2016 column titled, “Transformation of ‘Change’ from God Term to Devil Term in Nigeria.” Among other things, I wrote: “Change has now come to be associated with lies, deceit, hypocrisy, double standard, endless whining and blame shifting by people in government, descent from bad to worse in living conditions, incompetence in high places, unpreparedness, astonishing elite insensitivity, economic and social bondage, pauperization, reverse Robin Hoodism (which I once defined as robbing of the poor to enrich the rich), personalization of power, extreme nepotism and provincialism, facile and arrogant disavowal of promises made during campaigns, etc.

“These are all attributes the current ‘change’ administration embodies in colossal measure, which will certainly cause the ‘change’ slogan to become irretrievably damaged in Nigeria’s linguistic, rhetorical, and political landscape.”

Now people say the Buhari campaign might have actually said “chains” and people misheard or misunderstood it as promising “change.”

11. “Padding.” In an October 2, 2016 column titled, “‘Budget Padding,’ ‘Racist’ Economist,‘Tenants of Democracy’: English on the Move,” I wrote the following about the word: “Although no one definition accurately encapsulates the entire meaning of the term (even House of Representatives Speaker Yakubu Dogara once said he didn’t know what it meant), “budget padding” is generally understood in Nigeria to mean the borderline unethical addition of expenditures to the national budget, especially to allow for ‘constituency projects’ that benefit members of the National Assembly.

“This understanding of the term derives from the notion of ‘padding’ as stuffing something with extraneous material in order to firm it up. Some women, for instance, pad their bras to enhance their ‘cleavage,’ or to lend an illusion of largeness to their bosoms. Cabinetmakers pad chairs with foams both to raise them and to cushion the hardness of their surfaces. In essence, padding entails the addition of extra elements to something.”

People who “pad” budgets are called “budget padders,” or simply “padders.” Both the executive and the legislative branches of government now “pad” budgets every year.

12. “Inconclusive.” Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) earned notoriety for its inability to conclude elections. At some point, by its own admission, nearly 40 percent of elections it conducted were declared “inconclusive.”

 Before long, Nigerians renamed the agency as the “Inconclusive National Electoral Commission.” That must have really hurt the organization and caused it to reevaluate its conduct. After the appellative mockery of the organization went viral, it began to conclude its elections, even if in controversial circumstances. However, the organization appears to have relapsed to its “inconclusiveness” in its conduct of the election in Osun State.

Nevertheless, “inconclusive” is also used to describe the tentativeness, mutual contradictions, inconsistencies, policy somersaults, and denials and counter denials that characterize the Buhari administration. For instance, the 2016 budget was tagged an “inconclusive budget” by Nigerians. It was “padded,” got “missing,” was found, “unpadded,” but ended up being no different from its original “padded” form. And the 2017 budget was even worse than the 2016 budget.

13. “Wailer.” “Wailer” now just means a critic of President Buhari (see my September 6, 2015 article titled, “From Febuhari to ‘Wailing Wailers’: Linguistic Creativity Decline of the Buhari Brand”.) It was intended to be pejorative, but in light of the president’s serial letdowns of the people who elected him and his government’s rank ineptitude, people now wear the tag as a badge of honor. There are several informal groups that go by names such as “Wailers Association of Nigeria,” “Association of Wailers for Fair Nigeria and Good Governance,” the “Wailing Wailers Association of Nigeria,” etc. They all say they are wailing against the deceit, hypocrisy, double standard, nepotism, and corruption that fester in the current government.

The transmutation of “wailers” from a negative term to one that is embraced by those whom it was meant to taunt and hurt reminds me of the semantic transformation of the term “muckraker.” Former American president Theodore Roosevelt used the term to derisively refer to investigative journalists as people who dealt in dirt. (Muck means animal sh*t). American journalists embraced the tag and wore it as a badge of honor, and today “muckraker” is synonymous with a fearless investigative journalist.

14. “Hailer.”  A “hailer” is a Buhari partisan for whom Buhari can do no wrong. It was chosen both for its rhyming quality with and semantic contrast to “wailer.”  Another name for a hailer is SaiBabarian (also spelled as Saibarbarian). It blends “barbarian” (a crude, uncouth or ill-bred person) with “Sai Baba,” the battle cry of Buhari supporters, and suggests that Buhari’s vociferous supporters are obnoxious boors.

15. “Whailer.” A Whailer is someone who alternately criticizes and praises Buhari. It’s a blend of “wailer” and “hailer”

16. “Sting operation.” This phrase trended in Nigeria after operatives of Nigeria’s secret police called their overnight raid of judges’ homes a “sting operation.” But that’s not what the phrase means in Standard English.

A sting operation is an undercover operation in which a law enforcement officer or a cooperative citizen acts as a decoy to get firm evidence of a suspect’s wrongdoing. That was precisely what Daily Nigerian’s Jaafar Jaafar did to videographically capture Kano State governor Abdulalhi “Gandollar” Ganduje receiving loads of dollars in kickbacks from contractors. If Nigeria’s secret police had given marked money to a person who had a case in a court presided over by a corrupt judge and told the person to use the money to bribe the said judge, and the judge accepted the bribe and was then arrested based on the planted evidence, that would be a sting operation

17. “Belong to everybody and nobody”: This expression is now a stand-in for incompetence and shocking lack of empathy for poor people in their moments of danger. A powerful cartoon by BusinessDay’s gifted cartoonist Mike Asukwo captured this sense of the expression in a cartoon that shows poor women wailing for help from Buhari who ignores them and walks away saying he belongs to everybody and nobody, to which the wailing women say something along the lines of, “but we are nobody, so come help us since you belong to nobody.”


Related Articles:
How Buhari is Changing Nigerian English (I)
Politics of Grammar Column

Saturday, October 20, 2018

How Buhari’s Low Bar is Elevating Atiku

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

In a previous column, I argued that President Muhammadu Buhari has so lowered the bar of governance that it won’t take a lot for any person who succeeds him to impress Nigerians. So the best campaign against Buhari is to promise not to be like him, which is really sad because there is much more at stake in the task of governing Nigeria than just transcending Buhari’s incompetence and mediocrity.

Atiku Abubakar has started to excite voters by promising to not be like Buhari. On October 12, for instance, Atiku’s statement on Twitter that he won’t take six months to name his ministers resonated wildly with a lot of Nigerians. It reminded people that Buhari took six months to assemble the least impressive cabinet in Nigeria’s recent history, which is peopled by NYSC dodgers, certificate forgers, malefactors, liars, etc.

I extensively researched to see which other country in the world in recent memory elected a president who took six months to name his or her cabinet. There was none. So promising to name a cabinet shortly after inauguration ordinarily shouldn’t be a campaign promise because that’s what every elected president is expected to do. But you can’t fault Atiku because Buhari has lowered the bar to an unprecedented degree.

Atiku also promised that 40 percent of his cabinet would be composed of women and young people. Again, ordinarily, that would have been uninspiring, even condemnable, because the promise implies that 60 percent of his cabinet would be composed of old men, which is unfair, unbalanced, and regressive. However, look at Buhari’s cabinet, which he has failed to rejig in more than three years, and you will see why such an unimpressive pledge would strike a chord with Nigerian voters.

See below an excerpt from my February 3, 2018 column titled “How Buhari Has Lowered the Bar of Governance” to gain an insight into why Atiku’s popularity has been soaring in the last few days. Buhari’s unexampled incompetence is propelling Atiku to heights he is unworthy of:

“I had hoped that even if Buhari wasn’t a stellar president, he would at least not lower the bar. But that is precisely what he has done. He has set the bar of governance so low that all it would take for any president who comes after him to impress us is to:

1. Constitute his cabinet within a few days of being sworn in. It took Buhari nearly six months to appoint his cabinet, which is the worst record in Nigeria’s entire history. It slowed the country and hurt the economy. On September 17, 2015 when France 24’s François Picard asked him why he hadn’t named his ministers months after being sworn in, he said ministers were worthless and just “make a lot of noise.” That was a low point. And the cabinet he took months to put together turned out to be one of the most colorless and lackluster in Nigeria’s history.

2. Appoint members of governing boards of government agencies in the first few months of being in power. It took Buhari nearly three years to do this. Since government agencies can’t legally function without governing boards, governance basically halted for more than half of Buhari’s first term. That’s why I once observed that while previous administrations were guilty of misgovernance, Buhari is, for the most part, guilty of “ungovernance,” which is worse.

3. Not be so incompetent as to appoint dead people into government—and living people without first consulting them.

4. Periodically speak to Nigerians through the domestic media, not when he is abroad.

5. Personally visit sites of national tragedy, show emotion, and make national broadcasts to reassure a grieving nation. In my March 18, 2017 column titled, “Why Buhari Should Learn from Osinbajo,” I wrote:

“In a tragic irony, it took Buhari’s sickness for Nigeria to get a chance at some health. It also took his absence for the country to feel some presence of leadership. Why did it take the ascendancy of Osinbajo to the acting presidency for this to happen? The answer is simple: symbolic presence. Buhari lacked symbolic presence in the 20 months he was in charge.”

6. Have an economic team made up of economists and not, as Buhari has done, appoint a diplomat as an economic adviser and then push him to the gaunt fringes of the Vice President’s office.

7. Reflect token religious, regional, and national diversity in appointments. Buhari won a national mandate, but his appointments are, as I’ve pointed out in previous columns, undisguisedly Arewacentric. His personal example shows that he doesn’t believe in one Nigeria, yet he often insists that Nigeria’s unity is “non-negotiable.” That’s unreasonable.

8. Not lie shamelessly about self-evident facts.

9.  Not budget billions for Aso Rock Clinic and yet starve it of basic medicines (so much so that his own wife and daughter would complain openly) and then fly to London for medical treatment at the drop of a hat even for “ear infections” and “breathing difficulties.”

10.  Not have a compulsive runawayist impulse that ensures that he travels out of the country at the slightest opportunity and for the silliest reasons.

11. Even pretend that the whole of Nigeria is his constituency—including those who gave him “97%” of their votes and those who gave him only “5%” of their votes.

12. Add to the list

Sadly, these are really basic things that shouldn’t attract any praise. There is no greater evidence that Nigeria has regressed really badly in almost every index in Buhari’s less than 3 years of being in power than the reality of these grim facts.

And he wants you to extend this national tragedy for another 4 years in 2019? Well, it’s up to you. If that's what Nigerians want, who am I to deny them the "luxury" to inflict self-violence on themselves?

But what I won’t take is the narrative being promoted by apologists and beneficiaries of the government that there is no one better than Buhari at this time. On the contrary, it’s actually practically impossible to be worse than Buhari because he has brought Nigeria to the ground zero of incompetence, so almost anybody would be better than him. He descended from the zenith of “Sai Baba” to the slope of “Baba Go-slow” and finally to the nadir of “Baba Standstill.” It can’t get worse than that.”

Sunday, October 14, 2018

How Buhari is Changing Nigerian English (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has failed to bring about the “change” it promised Nigerians in 2015, which prompted his party to change its slogan from “change” to “progress,” but both the president and the political atmosphere he has inspired has changed the face of Nigerian English in noticeable ways. Below are expressions that emerged in Nigerian English because of Buhari.

1. “Body language”: No one who pays attention to Nigerian politics will fail to notice the incipience—and misuse— of this expression at around the ascendancy of the Buhari presidency. Supporters of the president who had no logical explanation for the relatively stable power in the country in the aftermath of his election attributed it to his “body language.”

The president’s supporters also said his “body language,” not deliberate policy changes, would fight corruption and inaugurate a new dawn in the country. Anyone who only understands Standard English would be mystified by this. By “body language,” Nigerian English speakers mean aura, that is, the intangible but nonetheless perceptible quality that a person inspires.

As a communication scholar, I teach body language, which we call kinesics or kinesis in the scholarly literature. It basically means the communication of messages, both subtle and overt, through the movement, in part or in whole, of the body. If I shake my head to show disapproval, I am using body language. If I spread my five or ten fingers to call someone a bastard, as we do in Nigeria in moments of inflamed passions, I am using body language. And so on and so forth. That’s how the expression is understood in international Standard English.

The notion of “body language” as the deterrent effect that the fear of a person inspires is uniquely Nigerian, and it started with the Buhari regime. You can’t read a person’s “body language” if you don’t physically see the person and observe their bodily motions. Invisible body language can’t make something happen. I had imagined, perhaps incorrectly, that people who talk of “Buhari’s body language” know enough to know that no one would have any clue what they are talking about outside Nigeria. I thought they weren’t ignorant of the Standard English meaning of the expression; I thought they were merely intentionally contorting and expanding the expression’s traditional meaning.

But, apparently, that’s not true. Most people use the expression out of ignorance of what it really means. For instance, while receiving members of the Muslim Businessmen and Professionals in his office on April 20, 2018, according to the Vanguard, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said, “There is no corruption in the presidency under the current government. This kind of body language is what is saving this country a lot of money now. Like what is happening in JAMB, Customs, FIRS, NPA, FAAN, NIMASA where we have witnessed improved revenue collection and returns to government for unspent resources.”

From the perspective of Standard English, that’s a senseless waste of words that doesn’t communicate anything. How can “body language” save the country a lot of money?

My own sense is that whoever came up with the expression was consciously imbuing an existing English expression with a new meaning in the service of a new, unlexicalized reality. But then many people started using the expression with no consciousness that the meaning associated with it is intentionally nonstandard; that it is a strictly made-for-Nigeria expression. I am not, by any means, discouraging the use of the expression in Nigerian contexts. I actually think the re-semanticization of the expression is evidence of linguistic creativity.

2. “Technically/technical.” The Buhari administration deploys the word “technically” or “technical” to modify and cover up blatant lies. When the president’s promise to defeat Boko Haram by December 2016 didn’t materialize, the government insisted nevertheless that it had “technically defeated” the group even when killings continued and still continue.

On May 3, 2018 when Buhari surreptitiously stopped in London to see his doctors after his American visit, his media aide called it a "technical stopover." "They had a technical stopover in London,” presidential spokesperson Garba Shehu told the Punch. “I am sure if you keep your ears to the ground, you will hear of his arrival soon.”

In everyday conversations in Nigeria, people now use “technically” or “technical” to jocularly cover up any obvious lie. Someone who failed his school certificate exams, for example, said he “technically passed.”  People who lose elections also say they have “technically won” it.

3. “Fatally wounded.” Nigerian military authorities popularized this expression when they claimed, in August 2016, that they had “fatally wounded” Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau. To fatally wound someone is to cause them to die from the wounds you have inflicted on them.

Nigerian military authorities insisted that by “fatally wounded,” they meant severely wounded. But fatal means “bringing death.” A fatal accident is an accident in which people die. “Fatally” is the adverbial form of “fatal,” and it means “resulting in death.” In fact, the usage example given for “fatally wounded” in the 2014 edition of the Collins English Dictionary is, “fatally wounded in battle.” Fatality also means human death. So when I say there has been a decrease in vehicular fatalities, I am saying fewer people now die in road accidents than in the immediate past.

4. “Hate Speech”: This is now an all-purpose term for any strong criticism of the incompetence of the Buhari government. It is now used in a mocking and jocular way on Nigerian social media to call attention to devastatingly vigorous criticism of the government.

The Standard English definition of hate speech has no relation with how the Buhari administration wants it to be understood. Cambridge Dictionary defines hate speech as, “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation (= the fact of being gay, etc.)”

5. “Cross the red line”: This is a Standard English idiom that means to act in a way that goes beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. Buhari coopted this expression in the service of his creeping tyranny. During his national broadcast on August 21, 2017, he said, “In the course of my stay in the United Kingdom, I have been kept in daily touch with events at home. Nigerians are robust and lively in discussing their affairs, but I was distressed to notice that some of the comments, especially in the [sic] social media have crossed our national red lines [sic] by daring to question our collective existence as a nation. This is a step too far.”

To cross the national red line has now come to mean to defy the tyranny of the Buhari regime. The expression has given rise to humorous derivatives such as “national red line crosser,” which means people who have no qualms calling out the incompetence and highhandedness of the Buhari regime.

6. “Soft targets”: This is a distastefully deceitful rhetorical strategy of the Buhari regime to minimize the horrors of Boko Haram’s atrocities against ordinary people. The government says Boko Haram now only attacks “soft targets.” This is merely a euphemism for poor people who, in the estimation of the Buhari regime, are inconsequential and worthless. To call victims of murderous terrorist brutality “soft targets” is to dehumanize them even in death. Unfortunately, many people, particularly from the northeast, have accepted this linguistic dehumanization of people at the bottom of the social ladder.

7. “Integrity”: This word has lost its Standard English meaning in Nigeria. Among Buhari supporters, “integrity” is a mythical and undefinable quality that only Buhari possesses. But to Buhari critics, it’s a word that inspires derision and that serves as a cover for fraud, corruption, and indefensible ethical violations. Buhari is now mockingly called “Mr. Integrity,” particularly when news of the untoward dealings of the regime he heads comes to light.

8. “The other room”: In response to his wife’s unusual criticism of his administration during a well-publicized BBC interview, Buhari said, in Germany, that his wife belonged to his “kitchen,” his “living room,” “and the other room.” It was a demeaning, belittling sexualization of his wife before the world.

“The other room” has many meanings in Standard English, but it generally means a place where alcoholic drinks are sold and served. However, Buhari infused a new meaning into this phrase. By “the other room,” the president meant his bedroom. It was one of the president’s lowest moments in 2016, but his unpresidential verbal indiscretion enriched Nigerian English’s lexical repertoire.  “The other room” is now a handy euphemism for “bedroom” in Nigerian English.

To be concluded next week

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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Atiku’s Emergence and End of the Road for Buhari

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I’m frankly not excited about an Atiku Abubakar presidency. In a previous widely shared Facebook status update, which I developed into a full-length article titled “There Must be an Alternative to Buhari and Atiku” for my December 16, 2017 column, I dismissed Atiku as a cancerous old stager who is indistinguishable from Buhari.

I also advocated a third force that is neither Atiku nor Buhari, which former president Olusegun Obasanjo quoted in his famous public letter to President Buhari. Nevertheless, if I have to choose between Atiku and Buhari, I’d choose Atiku with a lot of hesitation. There is no question that Buhari is the absolute worst president Nigeria has ever had the misfortune to be burdened with. He is thoroughly and irredeemably incompetent, not to mention unapologetically bigoted and lazy. Only a sick country would reward such a person with a second term.

It is a measure of how much Buhari has lowered the bar of governance that Atiku is now not just an option but also an appealing one. Buhari is so contagiously incompetent that almost every Nigerian thinks he can be a better president than he is. That's why we have a higher number of presidential contenders for the 2019 election than we've ever had in our entire history. That's what you get when you have an insensate geezer as a president whose incompetence is on steroids!

Atiku does have visibly thick, ugly ethical stains on him—at least on the perceptual, if not the evidentiary, level—which is why I'm not excited about him, but he is, without a doubt, cosmopolitan, passionate about learning, and infinitely better versed in the business of governance and managing a complex, multi-ethnic society like Nigeria than Buhari would ever be in a million lifetimes. Here’s why I think the emergence of Atiku as PDP's candidate has signaled the end of the road for Buhari.

First, Atiku is a formidable and ruthless political steamroller who has fierce, broad tentacles in every part of Nigeria. He will crush Buhari’s naïve political machinery with merciless ferocity, particularly because Buhari is severely vulnerable as a consequence of his odious legacy of insouciance and do-nothingness.  Nigeria’s current national mood and geo-political considerations also favor an Atiku win. Here is how.

There are broadly five voting blocs in Nigeria: the Northern Muslim bloc (which isn’t based on contiguous geography), the northern Christian bloc (which is also not based on contiguous geography), the southwest bloc (which is impervious to religious differences), the southeast bloc (which is entirely Igbo) and the southern ethnic minority bloc (which is fairly co-extensive with Nigeria’s oil belt).

A little note on the northern voting blocs. In the north, religion is the major, but by no means the only, instrument of mobilization and identity politics. That’s why, with some exceptions, Muslims in Kwara, Kogi and Niger states tend to have similar voting behaviors with Muslims in the northwest and in the northeast.

The Christian north is also not geographically bounded and mocks Nigeria’s six geopolitical groupings. It isn’t limited to central Nigeria; it extends to southern Borno, southern Kebbi, southern Kaduna, most of Taraba, parts of Adamawa, Bauchi, and Gombe states. That's why Middle Belt scholars talk of the "geographical Middle Belt" and the "cultural Middle Belt," which are just roundabout ways of saying "northern ethnic minority Christians." For my analysis, I like to use "northern ethnic minority Christians" because it's more precise.

To defeat Buhari, Atiku needs to win at least four of these blocs. Because of his history of comparatively genuine pan-Nigerianism, particularly in contradistinction to Buhari’s nakedly unremorseful ethno-regional chauvinism, Atiku will handily win the northern Christian, southeast, and southern ethnic minority blocs. Buhari may win the northern Muslim bloc, but certainly not by the same wide margin of victory he had always won it. Nigerian Shiites, the best-organized Muslim religious group, are mobilizing to vote against Buhari. He won their votes in 2015.

There is also palpable mass disillusionment with Buhari in Sokoto, Zamfara and Kebbi states, and there is growing public opinion in the northeast that it’s time for someone from the region to be president. The late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was the first and last person from the region to be chief executive of the republic. So Buhari no longer has a lock on the northern Muslim vote.

The southwest would be a battleground bloc, especially if Atiku’s running mate is chosen, as is rumored, from the southeast. Even though he has fiercely loyal, politically influential friends in the region, not to mention the fact that his first wife is from there, I don’t expect his victory there to be a cake walk. But the potential of winning three blocs and making significant dents on two others show that the auguries favor Atiku.

Nevertheless, he shouldn’t bask in a smug glow of self-satisfaction and relax. Here is what he needs to do if he must unseat Buhari. The South expects power to return to it in 2023. The Buhari campaign says only a Buhari second term can guarantee that. Atiku can neutralize that by signing a legally binding, publicly available affidavit that emphatically states that he will not, under any circumstance, seek a second term in 2023. It’s not enough to just say it since Buhari, who makes pious but airy pretenses to “integrity,” has violated this pledge. His advanced age, in addition to signing an affidavit that can be used against him in court should he violate his pledge, will redound to his acceptability in the South.

He should also actively reach out to people in the southwest, particularly those who are groaning under the weight of Bola Tinubu’s retrograde strangulation of the southwest polity, and strike a deal with them.

Finally, it’s not enough to have a strategy for defeating Buhari; Atiku should also have a strategy for defeating INEC, the police, and the DSS—if you know what I mean. One way to do this is to get Western nations, particularly the UK, interested in the 2019 election and the danger that Buhari’s rigging would pose to Nigeria’s continued survival. A stern threat from the UK government to ban Buhari from visiting London if he rigs the 2019 election is enough to make him “behave.” Buhari is a servile Anglophile who will never jeopardize his chances to visit London, especially to see his doctors.

A Buhari second term will end Nigeria as we know it. Of that, I am sure. Anyone, at this time, is better than Buhari. Atiku would have his own problems. Lincoln Steffens, an American muckraking journalist, once said, “Power is what men seek, and any group that gets it will abuse it. It is the same story.” So I cherish no illusions that Atiku won’t abuse power, but we are waiting for him. He would be an even easier president to take down than Buhari.

I wrote this column on October 10 when Atiku Abubakar hadn't picked Peter Obi as his running mate.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

"Barbing Salon,” “On a Platter of Gold” Not Standard English: Q and A on Nigerian English Usage

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Is it “barbing saloon” or “barbing salon”? Which one is correct and why?

Neither of the two is correct. The conventional expression among native English speakers is “barbershop,” or “barber shop,” or simply “barber’s,” as in, “I went to the barber’s to get a haircut.”  “Barbing salon” or “barbing saloon” are peculiarly Nigerian English expressions that no one outside Nigeria understands. Well, Ghanaians also use the expression, so it’s probably accurate to call it a West African English expression.

Some years back, a recently arrived Nigerian immigrant in America by the name of Deji asked on a website where he could get a “good barbing salon.” “Does anyone know where i can get a good barbing salon?” he wrote. “I am a black guy and would like the best place around.” The responses were hilarious. “What the hell is a barbing salon?” someone asked. To which the Nigerian responded: “Well, you know what a Salon is if you haven't had [sic] about barbing right? It's Simple!!” Well, it’s not that simple, as another poster pointed out: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

Yes, “barbing salon” doesn’t mean a place where you get a haircut. In fact, as I will show shortly, it really doesn’t mean anything in Standard English. So when you are outside Nigeria don’t ever tell anyone you are looking for a “barbing salon” or, worse, “barbing saloon.” You won’t be understood, and here is why.

In Standard English, the verb “barbing” is never used in relation to the act of cutting the hair. “Barbing” means to provide with barbed wires, as the gates and fences of many homes in Nigerian urban areas usually are. In other words, “barb” doesn’t mean to have a haircut; it means to fit with barbed wires, as in, “I barbed my house to prevent thieves from climbing over my fence.”

The verb used for cutting hair is “barber,” as in, “he barbers for a living.”

You are probably more concerned about the difference between a “saloon” and a “salon.” Well, a saloon is a place where alcoholic drinks are sold and served, what Nigerians call a “beer parlour.” Saloon is also the name of a kind of car. As you can see, combining “barbing” and “saloon” in the same sentence is one of the most meaningless expressions anyone can ever make in the English language.

A salon, on the other hand, is a place where women make their hair, do their nails, wax their bodies, etc. It’s also called a beauty shop, a beauty salon, or a beauty parlor. Of course, “salon” has other meanings, such as a place where works of art are displayed, a large sitting room for guests, etc., but it is most commonly used to refer to a place where hairdressers and beauticians work.

If you say “barbing salon” in any country where English is a native language, you might be understood to mean “a barbed salon,” that is, a salon that is fitted with barbed wires. That would be hard to even conceive of because salons are some of the safest places in the West; they don’t need barbed wires to protect them from criminals. So “barbing salon” is also a meaningless expression in Standard English.

Note that although salons cater mostly to women’s beauty needs, some of them also double as places where men can have a haircut. That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can call such places a “barber salon.” That would sound ridiculous.

In sum, it’s OK to say “barbing salon” in Nigeria because that’s what everybody else says, but be careful not to say that outside Nigeria if you want to be understood. Say “barber shop” instead.

I know there are many people in Nigeria who like gold, but could this be the reason why most of our people - educated and otherwise - (in)correctly use the phrase ''on a platter of gold?'' I've trawled my hard-copy dictionaries and even online platforms and couldn't find the phrase; but I was able to find ''on a silver platter.''  What do you say, Prof?

The usual idiom in Standard English is “on a platter” and sometimes “on a silver platter.” It is perhaps the latter rendering of the idiom that inspired Nigerian English speakers to replace “silver” with “gold” since gold is more valuable than silver.

The Nigerian English idiom “on a platter of gold” was most certainly popularized by a popular question in high school government and history exam that read something like: “Nigeria got its independence on a platter of gold. Discuss.” I don’t know if the question still appears in secondary school exams. It most definitely is the source of the Nigerian English rendering of the idiom as “on a platter of gold.”

To give or hand something to somebody “on a platter”— or “on a silver platter”— is to give it to him or her almost effortlessly. It is the same sense the Nigerian English idiom “on a platter of gold” conveys.

My sense is that native English speakers would understand that you mean “on a silver platter” if you say “on a platter of gold,” but it would immediately be apparent that you have limited proficiency in the language. The lexical and grammatical properties of idioms are usually fixed and can’t be changed arbitrarily. Replacing “silver” with “gold” and changing the structure of the idiom may be a good example of linguistic domestication, but it does mark you out as a non-native speaker.

"An ABU graduate is ahead of you naturally." What is wrong with this statement? Someone said the word "naturally" renders it less meaningful.

There is nothing wrong with the statement as far as I can tell. I think the person who told you the appearance of “naturally” renders the statement meaningless has a limited understanding of the range of meanings “naturally” encapsulates. “Naturally” can mean “of course” or “as might be expected,” and this meaning fits well with the intent of the quoted statement. “Naturally” doesn’t only mean “according to nature.”

 Nevertheless, as a graduate of Bayero University Kano, I would recast that sentence to, “A BUK graduate is ahead of you naturally”! Seriously, though, it is a creative, punny bumper-sticker slogan that both implies that the car whose sticker you’re reading is ahead of you of course (that is, “naturally,” or “goes without saying” because you have to be behind the car to read the sticker) and that its owner is an ABU or BUK or UI, etc. graduate. “Ahead” here can be understood both literally (that is, his car has sped past you) and figuratively, that is, the quality of his or her education is worth more than yours. It’s just cheeky, good-natured humor.

I want to know the meaning of these terms: kindergarten, daycare, nursery, and preschool in relation to school. Is it true that lecturers are regarded as professors in America?

In America, a daycare is a place where working parents take their children who are between the ages of 1 and 3. At age 4, children attend what is called pre-kindergarten, usually called “Pre-K.” At age 5, they attend kindergarten.

“Nursery school” is a chiefly British English term for what American English speakers recognize as pre-K and kindergarten. Note that the British “nursery school” and the American pre-K and kindergarten are collectively called “preschool” in both British and American English. Children who go to preschool are called preschoolers.

To your second question, yes, it’s true that in American English anybody who teaches at a university is called a professor. “Professor” is used in the same generic sense that “lecturer” is used in British and Nigerian English. For instance, where a British or Nigerian English speaker would say, “I have great lecturers in my university,” an American English speaker would say, “I have great professors in my university.” I have written several articles on this. Search the archives on my blog.

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