Thursday, May 08, 2008

Colonial throwbacks of a linguistic kind

Oftentimes, one can gauge a country’s colonialist past from examining the outwardly odd sounding phrases employed by its peoples. What might sound funny or plain stupid might have been the normal mode of expression back in one’s lands. I remember the times when I would refer to my graduation year as ‘the year I passed out’ and the horrified looks I received from potential employers here (now, 'passed out', here in the United States would mean to 'faint/swoon' – but it was the accepted term for graduation back in India – courtesy; the British). India had the Brits lording over it until 1947 and the resultant linguistic vestiges remain, albeit twisted.

I was reminded of this when I ran into a great piece on Nigerian English in the International Herald Tribune.

Some excerpts from everyday usage:
- A TV isn't switched on or off — it's "on-ed" or "off-ed."
- Nigerian congratulating someone on a success or victory will likely "felicitate" him rather than offer felicitations.
- Similarly, people are invited to "jubilate," or celebrate, a triumph.
- In Nigerian English, a very small boy would be a "small, small boy."
- Eateries are called "Chop Houses"
- Upset stomach? Take "gripe water."
- A flat while driving along? Take the tire to the "vulcanizer" to fix the ‘puncture’
- Street children are "urchins," and police often brand criminals as "touts," "rascals," or "miscreants" who carry "cutlasses" — machetes.
- In reporting crime, Nigerian newspapers say police ‘opened a can of worms’ when ‘raiding criminal hideouts’.
- A dead or jailed robber is often said to meet his ‘Waterloo’.
- Politicians "heap calumny" on those they accuse of corruption.

This is a link to an online Nigerian dictionary (a small but a very interesting one):

Some of my favorite entries in this document :

- Copyright: applied to a song performed by a popular entertainer previously made popular by another entertainer. Often said with slight scorn. as in That song is copyright)
- Defile the air: to fart (as in Who is defiling the air?)
- ESCORT: the number plate given to cars that escort an important dignitary
- Jam: to collide, to bump against, to hit (as in 'the moto jammed me' will translate to "The car ran into me")
- Now Now: immediately, at once (as in "Do it now now")
- Xerox: copy in an exam- Put to bed: to give birth (as in "She put to bed a bouncing baby boy")
- Sugar-mummy: older woman who supports younger man in exchange for sex
- Within: within the campus (as in "He is within" will translate to "He is somewhere in the building")

This blog has further interesting stories.

George Knapton (England, 1698 – 1778), ‘Portrait of John Ross Mackye, Full length, standing, wearing Turkish dress, a letter in his left hand, a negro page beyond’, oil on canvas, 93” X 57” (Image from a Sotheby’s auction book featuring British paintings from 1500 – 1850)

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