My former American student who is now my Facebook friend wrote a status update on Dec. 31, 2009 that got me thinking about Nigerian linguistic inventiveness. He wrote: “Ok, I'm REALLY sick of how the Colombians will call you, hang up immediately, and wait for you to call them back so that they don't waste their own cellular pay minutes.”
This lily white, perfectly gracious American who has friends in the South American nation of Colombia could have saved himself the torment of writing his status update with these needless overabundance of words if he knew the Nigerian meaning of “flashing.” Nigerians call what he described in so many words “flashing.” He could have simply written something like: “OK, I’m REALLY sick of Colombians flashing me.” All fairly affluent—and diasporan— Nigerians contend with this reality on a daily basis.
As linguists know only too well, language reflects people’s material reality. Americans have not lexicalized the act of necessitous people briefly calling financially well-situated friends and relations and hanging up in hopes of being called back because it is not in their mobile telephonic culture. In most cellphone plans in the United States, phone users get charged both for making and receiving calls. So there is no incentive to “flash” anybody.
The comments that followed my ex-student’s status update showed that “flashing” is a decidedly “Third World” peculiarity, and most countries that practice it have different creative neologisms to capture it. For instance, a commenter said Pakistanis and Indians call it “one-ring.” “One-ring,” he said, is both a noun and a verb. So it is typical for Pakistanis or Indians to say something like, “That wasn’t a real call; it was a one-ring.” Or “he one-ringed me.”
Another commenter wrote that people in some poor European countries, where call recipients don’t get charged for incoming calls, also “flash” their more prosperous friends and relatives. He said the word “squeal” (which ordinarily means to utter a high-pitched cry like a pig or to confess) has been appropriated in the service of expressing the sense we convey in Nigeria when we say someone has “flashed” us.
What became obvious from the discussion that my ex-student’s status update generated is that the existing corpora of contemporary English in the UK and in America have no lexical items to capture a prevailing telephonic idiosyncrasy in poor countries where endemic poverty compels people to "flash" or "one-ring" or “squeal” people who are thought to be comfortable enough to afford to call back. Since nature abhors a vacuum, English-speakers across the world who live with this emergent techno-cultural peculiarity are expanding the semantic boundaries of proximate vocabularies to express their reality.
Sooner or later, lexicographers will have to come to terms with these semantic extensions since English is now for all practical purposes the global language.
If these linguistic inventions had emerged in native-speaker environments they would certainly have been codified in notable dictionaries by now. For evidence, see how several American idiosyncratic words that were never captured in any dictionary made it to the Oxford Dictionary last year. The word “unfriend,” which means “to remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook,” was Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2009.
Other America-centric words that made it to the dictionary are, sexting (“the sending of sexually explicit texts and pictures by cellphone”), intexticated (“distracted because texting on a cell phone while driving a vehicle”), freemium (“a business model in which some basic services are provided for free, with the aim of enticing users to pay for additional, premium features or content”), funemployed (“taking advantage of one’s newly unemployed status to have fun or pursue other interests”), birther (“a conspiracy theorist who challenges President Obama’s birth certificate”), teabagger (“a person, who protests President Obama’s tax policies and stimulus package, often through local demonstrations known as “Tea Party” protests”), deleb (“a dead celebrity”), tramp stamp (“a tattoo on the lower back, usually on a woman”), etc.
Well, now we know that there are at least two other words apart from “flashing” that may compete for the attention of lexicographers: “one-ring” and “squeal.” There may be more. But I think “flash”— along with all its inflections— is more deserving of being recognized and codified in respectable dictionaries than either “one-ring” or “squeal.” “Flashing” is semantically closer to the action it describes than the Indian/Pakistan “one-ring” (which actually doesn’t exist in the English language) or the European “squeal” (which is markedly semantically distant from the action it describes.
“Flash,” of course, has many meanings, the most vulgar being to expose one’s genitals in public. But there are other technologically derived meanings of the word that make it proximate to how it is used in Nigerian English. Flash, for instance, means to gleam or glow intermittently, as in “the lights were flashing,” which is what literally happens when someone “flashes” your phone. It also means to appear briefly, as in “the headlines flashed on the screen.” When people “flash” us, their caller IDs appear briefly on the screens of our phones.
Another word in the Nigerian linguistic repertoire that bears testament to our linguistic creativity is the word “co-wife” or “co-wives,” which we use to denote female partners in a polygamous marriage. I smiled proudly the other day when a recent BBC report used “co-wives” in a story about South African President Jacob Zuma’s marriage to his third wife.
Other Nigerianisms that serve our communicative needs but that are absent from the word banks of Standard English varieties are, “naming ceremony,” “chewing stick,” “pounded yam,” etc. As we internationalize the cultural and culinary practices that these words denote, through our ever-expanding diasporas, we also need to self-consciously export the creative linguistic products that accompany them.
Of all the regions of the world, Africa has made the least contribution to the English language. It’s time to reverse that.