Daily Trust

English words that make Nigerians say the opposite of what they mean (II)

This week’s column is a continuation from last week. It’s a compilation of Nigerian English words and expressions that send mixed messages at best and express the opposite of what they intend at worst when spoken to native English speakers.

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12. “Bogus.” In Nigerian English, this word means big or outsized. That’s why it’s usual to hear shirts and dresses being described as “bogus” in Nigeria when the speakers mean the shirts or dresses are conspicuously oversized. In Standard English, however, bogus means fake, counterfeit, or fraudulent. If you tell a native English speaker that a shirt is bogus, you would be understood as saying the shirt is fake, perhaps made of counterfeit material. When an argument is bogus, it means it’s fraudulent. 

13. “Owe.” In Standard English, when you owe people, you’re indebted to them. You need to pay or repay them something. I had no idea that the meaning of this word is inverted among Hausa speakers until Aliyu Yakubu Yusuf, a bright young scholar of English studies at Bayero University’s English Department, called my attention to it. “In a sentence like, ‘Ali owes Tina N1000,’ many [Hausa-speaking northern] Nigerians would understand it to mean it was Tina who borrowed N1000 from Ali and therefore has to pay him back, not the other way round. I have come across this instance of misusage even among educated Hausa speakers of English,” he wrote. This is clearly an instance of mother-tongue “interference.”

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14. “We are managing”/ “we are surviving.” In Nigerian English, “managing” means struggling to make ends meet, i.e., not doing well. Example: “My brother, things are hard in the country now. I am just managing.” In American and British English, however, to be managing is to be successful. So where Nigerians would say they are “managing,” Americans and Britons would say they are “just surviving.” In Nigerian English, however, to be surviving is to overcome, to be in control.

An American researcher by the name of Rachel Reynolds who wrote about the Nigerian immigrant experience in America for an academic journal was struck by this intriguing dissimilarity in our usage of these expressions. She interviewed Nigerian immigrants in the Chicago area in the course of her research.  Even though her interviewees didn’t seem content with their material lot in America, they said they were “not surviving”; that they were just “managing.” She was initially dumb-stricken. When she finally figured out that Nigerians use “managing” to mean “surviving” and “surviving” to mean “managing,” she titled her article: “‘We Are Not Surviving, We Are Managing’: the Constitution of a Nigerian Diaspora along the Contours of the Global Economy.”

15. “You’re (highly) welcome.” As I pointed out last week, and in several past columns, in American English-and increasingly in British English-the expression “you’re welcome” functions only as a polite response to the expression of gratitude through the phrase “thank you.” In other words, Americans only say “you’re welcome” when someone says “thank you” to them. But Nigerian English speakers say “you’re welcome” where a simple “welcome” would do. 

An American friend of mine once told me how bewildered she was when everyone in Lagos said “you’re welcome, madam” to her upon being introduced to them. “I didn’t say ‘thank you’ to anybody. Why were they saying ‘you’re welcome’ to me?” she recalled.

After the “you’re-welcome-madam” pleasantries became unbearably omnipresent, she quickly figured out that it’s the Nigerian English way of saying “welcome, ma’am.” 

16. “Home training.” Nigerians say someone has home training (sometimes “good home training”) to mean the person is of good upbringing. So “home training” is synonymous with what native English speakers call “good manners,” “proper breeding,” or “polite behavior.” Native English speakers use “home training” only to refer to the training of animals (such as pets) at home and for physical exercise at home instead of the gym. 

Interestingly, in African-American Vernacular English (informally called Ebonics), “home training” means exactly what it means in Nigerian English. I haven’t figured out why that is the case. But one theory I propose is that since West African Pidgin English also called Guinea Coast Creole English (of which Nigerian Pidgin English is a huge part) is the distant ancestor of African-American Vernacular English, the expression is probably a remnant of this dim and distant linguistic affinity. 

Contemporary African-American Vernacular English emerged out of a process of decreolization, which is the conscious or unconscious purging of the structures and vocabularies of a non-European language in creole languages that emerged out of the admixture of non-European languages and European languages. But decreolization is not always total. That’s why linguists talk of “vestigial post-creoles,” which are decreolized languages that nonetheless have faint echoes of the indigenous languages they purged themselves of. It is entirely in the realm of possibility that “home training” is a direct translation of one or some of the West African languages that contributed to the formation of West African Pidgin English in the late 1600s from where Ebonics emerged.

 So outside Nigeria and black America, if you say something like “he has (no) home training,” you might be understood as talking about your dog (since native English speakers use human pronouns like “he” or “she” for their pets). 

17. “Touchy.” Many Nigerians use the adjective “touchy” when they mean “touching.” Although “touchy” and “touching” are somewhat similar-sounding words, they have wildly different meanings. Touchy means “easily offended” (as in, “he is very touchy on issues concerning religion”) or difficult to handle because it’s sensitive (as in, “religion is a touchy subject; be careful how you talk about it.”) Touching, on the other hand, means moving, stirring tender emotions, as in, “she wrote a touching obituary for her late husband.”

18. “I couldn’t agree less.” The usual idiom in Standard English is “I couldn’t agree more.” It means, “I completely agree with you.” But many Nigerian English speakers say “I couldn’t agree less” when they want to indicate that they totally agree with a position. However, “I couldn’t agree less” actually means, “I totally disagree.”

19. “Well done.” This is a calque (i.e., direct, unidiomatic translation from one language to another) from Nigerian languages where a special form of greeting is reserved to acknowledge that someone is working. This is culturally alien to native English speakers. Native English speakers say “well done!” only when they are actually praising someone for doing something really well. It’s synonymous with “bravo!” In Nigerian English, as in many Nigerian languages, you don’t have to be doing something well to be greeted with the exclamation “well done!” It’s merely a polite acknowledgement of the fact that you’re working. When I am mowing my lawn here in the US, my neighbors simply say “hi!”-if they say anything at all. Saying “well done!” to native English speakers would make them think you’re praising their work.

20. “Sorry!” When “sorry” is used as an interjection among native English speakers, it can only mean one of two things: an apology for a wrong you have done and a request for someone to repeat what they’ve said because you didn’t hear them the first time. In Nigerian English, however, “sorry!” is uttered to show empathy and concern when a misfortune befalls someone. The utterer of the exclamation doesn’t have to be responsible for the misfortune.

For instance, where Americans would say “Are you OK?” after someone skips a step and falls, Nigerians would say, “sorry!” This, of course, is also a calque from Nigerian languages.

21. “It’s a shame.” In informal spoken English among native speakers, “it’s a shame” simply means “it’s unfortunate.” It’s often used in a sympathetic way to suggest that you feel pity that bad something that shouldn’t happen did happen. Example: it’s a shame your dad died just when you were about to earn your PhD.” Saying this in Nigeria would earn you a punch in the face.

 In Nigerian English, “it’s a shame” is uttered when people mean you should be ashamed of yourself for a wrong you’ve done. In both British and American English, the idiom that unequivocally expresses the sense that one should feel embarrassed or ashamed over something is “for shame!” as in, “That’s a terrible thing to say to your parents. For shame!”

22. “Off.” Nigerians use “off” as a verb to mean “turn off” or “switch off.” In American English, “off” means to murder a person. Example: the woman hired someone to off her boyfriend’s side chick. Saying “off the light” to mean “turn off the light” might not communicate the intended message to a native English speaker.