I’ve read claims on social media that President Muhammadu Buhari is being unfairly vilified because he never mentioned the word “lazy” in his rambling response to a question about investment opportunities in Nigeria’s northeast. Because most people who make this claim can’t even string together a sentence in English that isn’t a mockery of the language, I’d chosen to ignore them. But even people with a fairly decent grasp of English are giving wing to this ridiculous grammatical ignorance.
Hello! In English, there’s a little something called “paraphrasing.” Look it up. It’s defined as expressing “the same message in different words.” In our quotidian dialogic engagements, more than 80 percent of what we say about what other people have said is a paraphrase of what they actually said. We often paraphrase for brevity and for clarity. This is particularly important for social media where brevity is the soul of conversation. It’s even more important for the news media where time and space constrain journalists to be brief, clear, and direct.
Buhari said Nigeria has a “young population” that just wants to “sit and do nothing and get housing education and health for free.” Social media users and headline writers paraphrased Buhari to have said “Nigerian youth are lazy.” (See notes on the usage of “youth” in the postscript.) Four words were used to compress and accurately capture the meaning of Buhari’s 12 words. Notice that Buhari also never used the word “youth”; he used “young people.” Yet the people who are griping about the word “lazy” haven’t said anything about “youth,” which Buhari also never directly uttered. If they’re complaining about Buhari never having said “lazy,” why aren’t they also complaining about Buhari never having said “youth”?
A person who sits and does nothing and expects to get free housing, education, and healthcare is unquestionably a lazy person. Well, he’s actually worse. American English speakers call such a person a moocher, a bum, or a scrounger-which is worse than being lazy.
It came as no surprise to me that one of the leading social media voices pushing the grammatically ignorant narrative that Buhari never called Nigerian youth “lazy” is Governor Nasir el-Rufai. It was the same el-Rufai who told his critics to “climb Kufena Hills and fall,” but took umbrage at a Vanguard reporter’s paraphrase of him as asking his critics to go die.
In my November 1, 2015 column titled, “El-Rufai’s Kufena Hills and Metaphors of Death in Nigerian Public Discourse,” I wrote: “Although Governor el-Rufai didn’t directly utter the word ‘die,’ Vanguard’s interpretive extension of his thanatological metaphor is perfectly legitimate, even brilliant. It’s interpretive journalism at its finest. It helped situate and contextualize the governor’s utterance for people who don’t have the cultural and geographic competence to grasp it.”
I ended the piece thus: “Governor el-Rufai’s media aides are inflicting [… ] semantic violence on metaphors and the interpretive enterprise by claiming that asking critics to jump from a hill isn’t synonymous with asking them to go die. Well, if the media aides-or, better yet, el-Rufai himself- can go jump from Kufena Hills and live to tell the story, we will believe their defense.” My challenge is still open.
Paraphrasing and interpreting the words of news sources has a long, distinguished history in journalism. One of the cases I teach my students here in the United States is that Janet Malcolm who quoted a psychoanalyst by the name of Jeffrey M. Masson as describing him as an “intellectual gigolo.” The psychiatrist said he never used those exacts and sued the journalist for $10 million. The case got to the US Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court ruled that paraphrasing someone, even reconstructing quotes from memory, is legitimate as long as the paraphrases or the reconstructions are faithful to the essence of what the source originally said. The psychoanalyst lost.
The portion of the US Supreme Court ruling that is relevant to this analysis goes thus: “While the use of quotations to attribute words not in fact spoken is important to that inquiry, the idea that any alteration beyond correction of grammar or syntax by itself proves falsity is rejected. Even if a statement has been recorded, the existence of both a speaker and a reporter, the translation between two media, the addition of punctuation, and the practical necessity to edit and make intelligible a speakers’ perhaps rambling comments, make it misleading to suggest that a quotation will be reconstructed with complete accuracy. However, if alterations give a different meaning to a speaker’s statements, bearing upon their defamatory character, then the device of quotations might well be critical in finding the words actionable.”
In other words, if you change, paraphrase, or reconstruct what someone says and your change, paraphrase, or reconstruction is syntactically different from the original you’re still within legitimate grounds so long as you capture the meaning of the original utterance.
So here is a little lesson for grammar-challenged Buharists. If someone says to you, “You always secretly take people’s money without their permission,” it’s OK to say that the person has called you a “thief.” The word “thief” doesn’t have to be uttered before you know that fact. If someone says to you, “You kill people without just cause,” he is also calling you a “murderer.” If he says, “You’re a citizen of Africa’s most populous country,” don’t wait until he says “you’re a Nigerian” before you know he is referring to you.
People are actually being charitable by paraphrasing Buhari as calling Nigerian youth “lazy.” His insult is way worse than that. A lazy person is merely a person who is disinclined to work. If, in addition to being disinclined to work, he is also expecting free stuff, he is a parasite, a leech. So the paraphrase should have been, “Buhari calls Nigerian youth illiterate parasites.”
Buharists and Patience Jonathan: An unlikely similarity!
When it comes to English grammar, Buhari supporters and former First Lady Patience Jonathan are more alike than unlike. When Boko Haram started using women as suicide bombers, Patience Jonathan memorably said, “I’ll rather kill myself than commit suicide.” For her, “kill myself” and “suicide” have no semantic kinship because they are different words.
Buharists are deploying this same preposterous “Patiencist” grammatical logic to defend their idol’s gaffe. They are, in effect, saying, “I will rather sit and do nothing than be lazy.” Or, more specifically, “I will rather not go to school, sit and do nothing, and get housing, healthcare, education free than be an uneducated parasite.” In the simplistic, grammar-challenged reasoning of Buhari idolaters, “to sit and do nothing” isn’t being lazy; it’s, er, just sitting and doing nothing! And to not go to school, sit and do nothing, and expect to get free housing, healthcare, and education isn’t being an uneducated parasite; it is whatever Buhari idolaters want it to be. Patience Jonathan is back on a mass scale!
Most of these grammatically dense Buhari supporters certainly have no capacity to decipher innuendo (indirect reference) and what is called dog-whistle language, that is, coded language targeted at specific groups in the general population.
“A lot of” Versus “All”
Buharists also said because Buhari only said “a lot of young people,” not “all young people,” are lazy, his critics are twisting his words to make it seem like he tarred all of Nigerian youth with the same brush. Well, let’s follow their Patiencist semantic logic again. When reference is made to number, “a lot of” can be synonymous with “for the most part.” In quantitative reasoning, “for the most part” means more than half or “the greater in number of two parts.”
Expressions like “a lot of,” “some people,” “experts say,” etc. are called weasel words, and are beloved by dodgy politicians and advertisers. They are intentionally imprecise and vague, and give room for artful verbal maneuver in the event that they spark controversy. Habitual retorts for people who are caught in the rhetorical labyrinth of weasel words is, “I didn’t say ‘all’; I only said ‘a lot’.” That’s called plausible deniability, and it’s a well-worn rhetorical fraud.
But Buhari spin-doctors’ use of that rhetorical stratagem can be turned against them. For instance, it can also be said that Buhari won “a lot,” but not “all,” Nigerian votes. If the logic of the Buhari spin-doctors were to be applied to his election, it would mean Buhari isn’t a legitimate president since he wasn’t elected by “all” Nigerians.
Postscript on the usage of “youth”
Youth has several meanings, but only two are relevant for this article. The first is the sense of youth as a collective noun to mean all young people, including male and female, are as a demographic group. This sense of the word is never pluralized. It is, “the youth of Nigeria,” not “the youths of Nigeria.”
The word also agrees with both a plural and a singular verb in British English. Examples: “Nigerian youth is unhappy with the president’s characterization of ‘a lot of young people’ as parasitic and illiterate.” Or, “Nigerian youth are unhappy with the president’s characterization of ‘a lot of young people’ as parasitic and illiterate.” In American English, only the former, that is, “youth is,” is considered “proper” in formal grammar.
Youth can also mean a young man. This sense of the word can be pluralized to “youths.” In other words, “youths” is synonymous with “young men,” but not “young women.”