Nigeria has since independence established its reputation firmly as an import-crazy country. We import almost anything, from corn to cake and caviar, and from mushrooms to manicure materials, and from trolleys to toothpick. We have an exotic taste for imports. On balance, we also do export something, crude oil, and a few other things. But when you crunch the export and import numbers, we come tragically short or shortchanged. We are simply more of consumers and less of producers.
But recently the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) did us a favour. It imported some words from Nigeria and is selling them to the world without charging us for the favour. The Oxford English Dictionary has just added 29 Nigerian words to the latest edition of its famous reference book. Some of the words are buka, bukateria, chop-chop, ember month, next tomorrow, guber, danfo, tokunbo, flag-off, gist, k-leg, mama put, non-indigene, okada and put to bed. I have used some of these words in my columns but I always italicise them. Now, italics, you can go home. Let us all give three gbosas to the Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Ms Danica Salazar, in the hope that she will understand our three gbosas to mean three happy cheers.
Language is dynamic. It evolves, picks up new words or new meanings for old words. This activity makes every language to grow and glow. Any language that does not go through this process of regeneration may simply wane or even wither and die. The formal study of language is said to have started in India with Panini, the 5th Century BC grammarian who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit morphology. Since then, scholars like Noam Chomsky, who formulated the “generative theory of language,” have added much to our knowledge of the evolution of languages especially the English Language. It is a happy event that Nigeria is now a contributor to that evolution by the acceptance of its slangs or Nigerianese into the world’s lexicon, OED.
Nigeria has a rich vocabulary of what we call Nigerian English or Nigerianese. That is an eclectic collection of new or old words used by people of all ages, sexes and professions. Nigerian English is sourced from pidgin or Nigeria’s vernacular languages, slangs and proverbs. Some of these words and expressions have survived for a long time and are used regularly, e.g, wahala and kata kata. Part of why they survive is the beauty of their alliterative power. Some of the words and expressions survive only for a short time because they belong to the waka pass (minor) class. They breathe for a few months or years and then pass on unmourned and unsung because they “left us too soon.” For example, in the late 70s it was usual for workers in Nigeria to talk about Udoji. One friend would say to another, “Have you got your Udoji?” The friend would respond, “Oh yes-ooo.” Then his friend would say “congratulations.” People living outside Nigeria would never get the correct meaning of that conversation. The uninitiated might think that the guy has just graduated from college and received a Diploma called Udoji. But the conversation was about Udoji Awards, the financial windfall that came to workers in 1974/75 as a result of the salary review committee’s report. That committee was headed by an experienced public servant by the name of Jerome Udoji. So, once you said Udoji, it was understood to mean “award,” “money,” “windfall.” Other salary reforms came later and they were known by the names of those who headed those committees. For example, Adebo Awards and Akintola Williams Awards. If someone asked, “How did Akintola Williams affect you?” a visitor might think that Akintola Williams is a new malaria medicine you took last night. Such words easily fade away with the occasions that gave birth to them.
Nigerians like colourful words, especially those that depict grandeur. International, for example, is not used by Nigerians simply to describe relations between nations. Many small businesses – even of the one-room variety – are registered as ABC International Enterprises Limited. All the business done by the company may be in one local government or one room but “international” gives the impression of bigness. Some local tailors and barbers are also international. The other word that we love is complex, a housing complex, an office complex, a hospital complex, a university complex and even a stadium complex. The idea is to give a false impression of grandeur, complexity, sophistication, state-of-the-artness, eminence, resplendence and magnificence all rolled into one. But when the word is stripped to its pants, what you see is fakery.
I was a paper presenter at a language and literature conference at the University of Uyo in February 2017. As part of my paper, I gave a glossary of what I called Nigerianese, that is, Nigerian English. Let me give you a peep into my collection. The words mago mago and wuru wuru had always been around with us. But the man who gave wings and etched them permanently into our consciousness is Humphrey Nwosu, the professor of Political Science who conducted the 1993 elections. He said that the 1993 election was free and fair and devoid of mago mago and wuru wuru, that is, no cheating, no hanky-panky. He offered as evidence of non-cheating the fact that there was no wahala and no kata kata. These words have earned a well-deserved place in the lexicon of Nigerian English because they are exotic, alliterative, alluring, succulent and sexy and, therefore, easily retainable. Since most of the elections conducted after 1993 have been conducted with the mago mago and wuru wuru playbook as a guide, the words won’t go away soon. Now, a new word has been added to our election vocabulary: inconclusive. When an election is declared inconclusive, it means there was ballot-box stuffing, ballot-box snatching or that the paymaster did not win. In the public service, the bureaucratese “not on seat” has been firmly on seat for a long time. When a public servant in Nigeria is “not on seat,” it could mean that he has not come to work or he went to the washroom or to the restaurant or hospital or Jankara market or to a flea market in Okokomaiko. The meaning is very elastic and unspecific.
For some time now, the expression “an act of God” has crawled into our dictionary without God’s blessings. In Europe or America, an act of God would be, say, an earthquake, a typhoon, a tsunami, thunder or lightning. Not so in Nigeria. If a plane crashes because it was not serviced when due or the pilot was drunk, we call it an act of God. If someone gets fired for incompetence or for fraud or a well-conducted election is annulled, we call it an act of God. If a politician massively rigs an election and “wins,” we say that he won because it was an act of God, since, in our reckoning, it is God that gives and takes power. Very fraudulent philosophy with the use of God’s holy name.
Some of the other well-known and generally used words distilled from my collection are mugu or ode (a fool), ojoro (deception), CD (condom, not compact disc), parachute (agbada), Bakassi (a woman’s backside), a happening person (trendy), paymaster (a generous lover, not a salary accountant), belly dancing (sexual performance, not the oriental dance), fashi (forget), Aje butter (a silver-spoon kid), Aje kpako (an underling, a suffering person), Agbaya (a crooked, fun-loving person), agbero/area boy (a tout, ruffian), groundnuts (bullets), awoof (unmerited favour), egunje (bribe), to settle (to bribe), nyama nyama (tasteless, unworthy).
A lot of these words come from politics, economic activities and relationships. But there are also words that come from gastronomy, which have gained universal recognition within Nigeria. In any part of Nigeria today, most people know without being told what sort of foods are afang, edikong-ikong, isi-ewu, ugba, tuwo and ekpang nkukwo. In many Nigerian or African restaurants abroad, these foods are generally served. Many foreigners within and outside Nigeria who have equal opportunity palates have enjoyed these Nigerian dishes with relish. One hopes that, someday, they will begin to feature in the menus of standard western restaurants and hopefully find their way into their cook books and food dictionaries.
Now that the Oxford English Dictionary has given us something to crow about, one hopes other dictionaries such as Websters, Collins, etc, will recognise the vibrancy, potency, dynamism and the wide-acceptability of some Nigerian words and expressions by giving them a place of honour in their dictionaries. When that happens, we will be proud to say that “we full ground” or, as President Olusegun Obasanjo would have said: “We dey kampe.”