Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Mutilation and Mutation of the English Language

English is one language that is unintentionally rude, confusing and constantly evolving. Comedians and satirists have long played with words intelligently, garnering laughter from enthralled audiences. Teachers have, with great frustration, instructed one too many kids on the difference between who and whom.

Similarly, cunning politicians and lawyers have abused and convoluted words in ways that would leave even experienced lexicographers at their wit’s ends. And the rest of us? Well, the rest of us have been left to our own devices – to mutilate, transform and create words to our liking.

I’ll illustrate this phenomenon with a few anecdotes.

In Nigeria, as in most places where English was imposed by the colonial masters – the British, we have slightly twisted the language for better or worse - depending on who you ask.  On any given day, words like, “reverse back”, “I’ve called you severally” and “trafficate” are bandied about so casually that Nigerians have accepted that some lessons in English will never be learned.

I must confess I like the word trafficate and blissfully ignore Microsoft Word’s angry red line whenever it appears under it. Surprisingly, I only just realised the word trafficate doesn’t exist in the English dictionary. I had been writing a story and typed the word only to see it underlined.

At first I thought it was an issue with the spelling, but after right-clicking for the correction and not seeing any, I searched Dictionary.com – and to my dismay I saw nothing. The word doesn’t exist. Anyway, not one to be fazed by this egregious oversight, I declared, “if words like bootilicious and boo can be accommodated by English dictionaries, then surely there is room for trafficate.”

For me, and for most Nigerians, no word succinctly describes the use of a car’s trafficator as the verb trafficate.

There’s a story involving the misinterpretation of the word lady that cracks me up to this day.

A few moons ago, my two project teammates and I were saddled with the degrading task of collecting feces from infants to ascertain the prevalence of a certain infection in Kumasi, Ghana. For easy access to stool samples, our supervisor suggested some Paediatric hospitals and gave us the name of one superintendent he knew. It was unapologetically female.

However, by the time we had set out to meet this hospital’s superintendent, her name had slipped from our minds, so on meeting her secretary we only said:  “We’re here to meet with the lady responsible for the hospital.”

“She’s not a lady,” said the secretary.

“Oh,” I said, surprised. “It’s a man?” asked my teammate.

“No, she’s a woman,” replied the secretary matter-of-factly.

“Ah, but a lady is a woman,” my teammate retorted, amused by the woman’s reply.

“No, she’s not young but elderly,” argued the secretary.

At that point, we realised it was a lost cause trying to explain that the noun lady could be used in the description of both an elderly woman and a lass. Needless to say, the incident left us in stitches.

Similarly, people object to calling elderly men guys, which I find amusing because if the dictionary’s definition is to be accepted, then that noun perfectly suits the 100 year-old grandpa and his cherubic 7 year-old grandson.

One thing anyone who grew up in Africa knows is that Africans don’t joke with their titles. If someone tells you they have a PhD, you better address them as Doctor such and such. Likewise, if he or she is a professor, you start with Professor Jane Doe. A Mr. or Mrs doesn’t cut it unless they have no professional or chieftaincy title. But a recent conversation with a friend revealed that some ‘untitled’ people don’t take kindly to the title Mr.

My friend had sent an email to his boss that required a reply. After 2 days, when he didn’t reply, my friend decided to a face to face encounter was in order.

“Yes, I saw it, but didn’t reply because I didn’t like the way you addressed me,” said the man gruffly.

My friend, startled, asked, “What is it in the email that annoyed you?”

“Your salutation to me was Dear Mr. John Doe instead of Sah. It should be Dear Sah.”

Bemused, my friend returned to his sit and resent the email with the approved salutation.

Now, I didn’t know people took offence to that kind of thing. This is what happens when people have a limited understanding of words and/or don’t care for their meaning.

Speaking of limited understanding, there’s no word that gets my goat as much as the word girl, especially when it’s used in the work place and by people who aren’t family or friends. Girl was cute and appropriate as a child and a teen, but as an adult it reeks of condescension.

I recall making an official call to an employee to pass on a piece of information. He was pleased with the news and expressed his glee with a derogatory “good girl”.

Did he just say good girl? I thought to myself. I could feel the hairs on my back rise. “I’m not a girl, so please don’t call me that,” I said curtly.

“Ah, but you’re a girl. You’re not married yet,” the man responded, slightly confused, thinking an explanation was needed.

At that point, my blood began to boil and I knew I had to terminate the call, “Look, I’m not a girl. You either refer to me as a woman or a lady.” The man was about to object with the same “but you’re not married” line, when I cut him off saying I wasn’t ready to continue that conversation with him.

Likewise, on several occasions, my mom has expressed mild irritation when women her age I’m introduced to say, “Baby, how are you?” “How can they be calling a grown person a baby?” she mutters under her breath.

Isn’t it comical that even with various English dictionaries at our disposal people still define and understand words one-dimensionally, or heedlessly make up theirs to suit their milieu? For those who have resolved never to concern themselves with the rigidity of standardized English, saying it’s me as opposed to it’s I or who when whom is intended doesn’t make their skin crawl.

And that’s the beauty of the English language. It’s constantly mutating. With words taking on new meaning in different contexts, conservationists are given leeway to interpret and either accept or reject them as they deem fit.