Femke becomes Funke: Oyinbo’s dictionary to Nigerian English

I am talking about the English Nigerians speak, sometimes hard to understand for foreigners who are not used to the particular Nigerian intonation, but simply beautiful with all its idiosyncrasies and creativities.

This is long overdue, in fact, it is almost too late. As I was starting to write up this list of typical Nigerian English turns of phrase, use of words and neologisms, my mind went blank. I have got used to Nigerian English to such a level that the charming differences in the language I formerly noticed, have penetrated my system and do not catch my attention anymore. I am not talking about Pidgin, by the way, which I am starting to understand but am still far from speaking (It does not help that people crack up collectively when I try). I am talking about the English Nigerians speak, sometimes hard to understand for foreigners who are not used to the particular Nigerian intonation, but simply beautiful with all its idiosyncrasies and creativities. Just a little anthology of the things I have learnt.


abi, o, now [interjection] To be sprayed generously in conversation at the end of virtually every sentence. The first comes from Yoruba and means ‘isn’t it’, found its way into Pidgin and now into Nigerian English, used by Efik, Ijaw, Kataf,  Igbo, Nupe and Hausa alike. The two latter words are mere exclamations emphasising the preceding ones. These interjections creep into your sentences without warning. When I added my first ‘o’ after a sentence, my friend Doris looked at me proudly: ‘You are becoming a proper Nigerian.’ I had not even noticed my first ‘o’.

baby mama [noun] Expression of Jamaican origin describing a woman a man has a child with, but is not currently involved with. I never heard of it until I came to Nigeria, where it is used a lot, especially when it involves celebrities. 2Face Idibia, Wizkid, Timaya, they all have their baby mama’s. A worrying trend. I have met young men telling me they would want a kid from a baby mama, but no wife. So where does baby papa go I wonder?

flash [verb] To call up by telephone. ‘I’ll flash you when I’m around’ (for explanation of latter part of expression see later). A variation on the theme is the ‘missed call’, someone who hangs up after one ringtone. This basically means the person wants to talk to you but does not want to spend money on you. Not done between guys.

fuel [noun] The stuff that makes Nigeria go round. It feeds your car engine and your generator. Would not have been so special, were it not for the pronunciation of the word in Nigerian English: it is pronounced ‘fooyel‘. Before I figured that out, both my car and my generator engine were parched and in dire need of petrol.

I’m coming [expression] Sentence uttered by a person actually leaving, thus expressing his intention to, at some point in time, return. When that will be is unclear even to the speaker himself.

I’m on my way [expression] Sentence uttered by someone who is at home on the couch watching AfricaMagic, but is supposed to be at an appointment and is reminded of this by a phone call. Do not expect the speaker to show up for the next two hours.

I’m around [expression] Sentence uttered by same person who just fished the car keys off the tray on the desk to get to his appointment. On his way, he will find a crazy NEPA bill he needs to go settle first, at least two traffic jams and a parking problem. Do not expect this person to show up within the hour.

I’m at your door [expression] Sentence uttered by the said person getting close to his destination and now getting impatient himself. He kept you waiting, but does not want to be waiting himself. No need to run to open your gate: there will be nobody there. Wait for his final flash (see earlier).

light [noun] No sun involved in the Nigerian English definition of this word: light is an equivalent for electricity, or more accurately, for electric current. Often used in combination with the verb ‘to take’. ‘They’ve taken light’. ‘They’ refers to the faceless decisionmakers at the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (formerly known as NEPA) whose whims all Nigerians, rich and poor, are dependent on. When I started looking for a place, I told everyone I wanted an apartment with a lot of light, meaning big windows to let in the sun. People however understood I was looking for a place with 24/7 electricity and were probably thinking: ‘That spoiled oyinbo woman. Who wouldn’t want ’round the clock light? She should have stayed in Europe.’

no road [noun] Warning to road users not to try and take the road they had intended. Has the asphalt suddenly melted and disappeared into the earth or has a landslide covered the existing paved road? No, the road is still very much in existence, tarmac, potholes and all. All that ‘no road’ means is that the road is blocked by an inexperienced truck driver who manoeuvred his lorry so clumsily it is now stuck in between a building and a bridge and it will take at least two hours to free the vehicle, by an important politician, former politician or one of their wives celebrating their birthday and needing half the city’s streets for themselves to be transported to the party venue or by a herd of ‘okada’ drivers protesting the state’s decision to ban them from the main streets.

not serious [adjective] Describes a person not having what it takes to make it in life, either at university (as in likely to end up in a cult), as a partner in marriage (the dreaded baby papa) or careerwise. Quite a serious dismissal of character.

now now [adverb] Because the concept of time is a loosely applied one in general, there is a need for a more urgent word than the single ‘now’. To emphasize that something really needs direct attention or action, the word is repeated. Brilliant.

plenty [adjective also used as adverb] Used as the adjective ‘a lot’, without the usual ‘of’ following. ‘There was plenty traffic on Ikorodu Road.’ As an adverb it has gained the quality to stand alone in a sentence. ‘I love you plenty’. (Sic)

shortage [noun] Not what it seems. Especially in combination with fuel (see earlier). When cars are queuing in front of filling stations (also a typical Nigerian English word, now I think of it), it does not necessarily mean there is a real shortage of gasoline. It could mean someone on talk radio mentioned there might be a shortage of fuel and everyone ran off to the pump to get gas before they ran out. It could also mean the cabal, a faceless money devouring beast living off Nigeria’s oil wealth, is trying to blackmail the government into (not) doing something by withholding the one thing all Nigerians are thirsty for. The phenomenon can be surprisingly local. When half of Surulere is queuing for fuel around Ojuelegba (where you also find the black market hawkers with their kegs of gasoline), one can usually find a serene filling station five minutes away towards Mushin that has gas in abundance. Don’t tell those cars flocking at Ojuelegba I told you so.

sorry [also: pele] Expresses not necessarily apology but empathy. Uttered at someone who gets outs of his non airconditioned car sweating like a pig, drops a heavy brick on his own foot or trips and falls over one of the many loose tiles in the pavement. First reaction of most Westerners when they get a ‘sorry’ over that, is ‘it is not your fault’. It takes some time before they realise it is actually an expression of compassion. One of the words I cherish most in Nigerian English.

wahala [noun] Trouble. Not to be mistaken for walhalla, which signifies the exact opposite in another part of the world. Of Hausa origin. ‘No wahala’: expression of typical unfounded Nigerian optimism. As living in Nigeria means being on a constant trouble shooting assignment, it is most commonly used without ‘no’ as a prefix. Multi usable and applicable in combination with virtually everything:

‘Baby mama wahala’ (Then don’t become a baby papa.)

‘Fuel wahala’ (Where there is an artificial shortage of some kind.)

‘Light wahala’ (When it has been taken.)

‘Internet wahala’ (The reason why this column is a day late.)


Talk to Femke on Twitter: @femkevanzeijl


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (11)

  1. Leave am. The guy de write like person wey like to de carry last.

  2. funke femke, omo to make sense, omo too gbaski

  3. So funny and apt!!!love your writin style!!I still can't stop LOL

  4. Guy, dat ur comment no make sense at-all.


  5. Where is your sense of humor? Are you for real?

    Take a back seat my friend..*mstchew

  6. Wetin concern her how we take de speak English,na our Language be [email protected]?wetin I know be say we de try,abeg Femke or Funke or even Funkie,anyone wey u be,u go soon commot 4 ds naija,write something else in ur nxt article,make we be abeg,we dey understand ourselves wella n we no send weda u or ur pple understand us or not,if u no know wetin u wan write,wait make I buy u broom wey u go carry sweep desert. I'm sure u r short of wht to Write on. NKAKWU.

  7. quite hilarious.well u still have a lot to learn. 'toh bad', 'too gbaski','joor oh'. looking forward to future editions.

  8. Hahahaha! Very nice comic relief for my stressful day. Thanks funke. Nicely composed. Looking forward to the updated dictionary with "nothing dey happen", "na wa o", "onyibo", "na wash", "long thing"…

  9. Very intersting.

    How come "Na Wa" never made it to this article?

  10. Brilliant. Nice.
    We are Proudly Nigerian

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cool good eh love2 cute confused notgood numb disgusting fail