Matters lexical

In his column for this newspaper several months ago, Harvard Professor Biodun (BJ) Jeyifo, who cares more passionately about the proper use of the language than most people I know in the business, called attention to the abuse of the word “foremost” in the Nigerian news media — a misuse so rampant that it qualifies to be called an abuse.

Usually, it takes the form “foremost banker, “foremost oil magnate,” or “foremost evangelist, or indeed, “foremost whatever,” where “whatever” can be a calling, trade, profession, occupation, or specialism.

Jeyifo explained with his accustomed lucidity that the term is meaningless if it is not preceded by the definite article the, as in “the foremost banker,” the foremost urban geographer,” “the foremost theologian,” or “the foremost Soyinka scholar,” a distinction that Jefiyo has earned in a lifetime of comment and criticism on the ouvre of the Nobelist.

But it was almost labour lost.  The very next week, the news media were brimming with foremost thespians and foremost labour leaders and foremost musicians.

I myself can report a similar experience. Two weeks ago, in a tailpiece to my column, I wrote about  “Our diminished universities.” The lament however was not about the underfunding, infrastructural deficit, and the erosion of autonomy and the sex scandals that vitiate their existence.

My concern was that the news media have reduced them to firms run by managers. Hence, we are told of how “the management” of a certain university has put out a strict dress code for female students, and how “the management” of another university has announced a zero-tolerance policy on campus sexual harassment in its many guises.

Like BJ’s, my intervention seemed like labour wasted.

Several days after the piece was published, this very newspaper was writing about “the management” of the University of Lagos. This past week, an eminent academic and newspaper columnist in a comment on campus sexual harassment heaped much the blame on “the management” of the universities. And an official of the University of Lagos spoke of its “management.”

There are units in the university which function as firms and are run by managers, the bookshop and the Guest House being examples.  But the university, it is necessary to insist, is not a firm. It is run on the collegial principle.

What is wrong with reporting that “The university of Abuja today announced that its medical school has been fully accredited by the Nigeria Medical Council? “ Isn’t that sharper and more specific than making “the management” of the University of Abuja the actor?

Those who employ such usage are wont to ask:  Why the fuss, when the public understands what we are talking about?  But if you are in the business of pubic communications, you can make no such assumption. The referent of a title must be specific.  Apropos of the university, the term vice chancellor or register is precise.  “The management,” on the other hand, is nebulous.

As a general rule of public communication, the specific is always to be preferred to the nebulous.

A first-time visitor to Nigeria who has spent some time reading Nigerian newspapers in preparation for the trip is likely to ask after exiting the airport:  Where are the stakeholders? From one day to the next, from one story to the next, the profile of a Nigerian that emerges is that of a person lugging all over the place stakes that they guard jealously.

Every man, woman or child is a stakeholder in one area of the national life or another.  You are not merely an electricity consumer, you are a stakeholder in the matter, or better still, a stakeholder in the energy sub-sector.  If you subscribe to the rule of law, you are a stakeholder in the judiciary.  As a parent or guardian of a student, you are an education stakeholder.

How is a visitor to protect himself or herself against all those stakes which can be repurposed into weapons of offence without notice?

I have inveighed against that word more times that I can recall.  I have even gone so far as to declare if I had the power, I would ban its usage.  For it discourages the search for creative alternatives.  Why strain to find another word when one that has been employed, to serve that purpose, however egregiously, is there for the plucking?

One alert reader has charged me with not practicing what I teach, pointing out that only last week, I had employed the word “stakeholders” in my column, “Rumours of a Third Term and a wedding.” Specifically, I had urged all “stakeholders” in the very delicate matter under reference to rest easy, since one of the parties was likely to be so fully engaged with ministerial duties that the status quo in the Villa was unlikely to be threatened.

I had agonized over the word but had settled for it from a sound instinct of self-preservation.  Enough said.

One other abusage has attracted less attention that it merits.  I have in mind the word “conducive.”  We want a conducive environment, a conducive workplace, a conducive motoring experience, etc., etc. Some even speak of a “highly conducive environment.”

Conducive to what?

The word is an adjective, and it means likely to lead to some desirable end.  It cannot stand alone. You have to specify the end desired, as in “A good workplace is conducive to high productivity.”

In terms of abusage, the very “assure” falls in the same league as “conducive.” Example: “The floods will not affect the bumper rice harvest expected this year, the Minister of Agriculture has assured.”

“Assure” is a transitive verb.  That kind of verb cannot stand alone. It less with an object. And so when we encounter a sentence like that, we must ask:  assure whom.  Without the “whom, the sentence is incorrect.

Given the climate crisis that has now been catapulted to the top of the global agenda, floods are no longer a rarity, even in desert regions. The rain comes down in sheets, lakes swell, rivers rage and sweep away almost everything in their wake.

Reporting on this phenomenon, with its own special vocabulary, has become a staple of news.

One word that readily comes to the reporter’s aid but is often misapplied is “submerged,” which means “under water. But that is not emphatic enough for some reporters.  So, they write of structures that are “completely submerged,” which is a redundancy.

Unless a house or other structure is under water, do not describe it as “submerged,” much less as “completely submerged.”  If you can see its top, it is flooded not submerged.

Pronunciations of some apparently common words are even more daunting than the use of words in writing.  I learned that lesson some six decades ago, when the Northern Minister of Education, the highly regarded Isa Kaita, an alumnus of the famous Katsina Higher College and a contemporary of the Premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, visited my School, St Paul’s College, in Wusasa, Zaria.

In his address before the staff and students, Isa Kaita spoke of the “jigantik” strides the Government was taking in education.

You could hear the chortling and the chuckling in the ranks of the students, most of them from the lower Middle Belt and the South.

“A whole minister, some of them sniggered after the assembly. He can’t even pronounce an ordinary word like “jijantik.”

Back in class, one of the less self-assured students looked the pronunciation up in the Advanced Learners Dictionary of the English Language a standard issue in the school.

Alhaji Isa Kaita had it right, he announced.

When in doubt, look it up.

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