Femke becomes Funke: Oyinbo’s dictionary to Nigerian English (Part 2)

by Femke van Zeijl

Amebos idle their time away doing nothing but gossiping maliciously about other people. Often of the female gender, amebos are most commonly found among clients in hair salons.

Continued (but not exhaustive) list of the captivating idiosyncrasies of Nigerian English and its common English words bestowed with a new meaning, as they strike the relative newcomer – until she starts using them herself and cannot tell the difference anymore.

For part 1 click here.

bad belle [expression] Derived from Niger Delta Pidgin, now commonly used in Nigerian English, ‘bad belle’ literally means bad stomach and refers to a bitter taste. In the metaphorical sense ‘bad belle’ stands for jealousy. Bad belle people are those who live in envy of others, who begrudge other people their success or happiness. Bad belle people whisper disapprovingly amongst each other when a neighbour has bought the newest Toyota Prado or when a colleague comes to work with a more expensive Brazilian weave than they could afford this month themselves. In a society where passing your neighbour seems to be a national goal, bad belle sprouts everywhere. Especially in combination with the ‘amebo’ phenomenon. Amebos idle their time away doing nothing but gossiping maliciously about other people. Often of the female gender, amebos are most commonly found among clients in hair salons.


crazy / foolish / idiot [adjective, adverb] Used in the public arena these words might appear to be synonyms, but that is deception. Being called ‘crazy’, at least in the Lagosian sense, is in fact a sign of respect. When the taxi driver whose car you have missed by half an inch forcing your way into the go slow on Ikorodu Road mutters to no one in particular ‘this one is crazy’, he has acknowledged you as a worthy opponent, a street wise Lagosian. Foolish however dismisses you as a nitwit. Idiot is the superlative of foolish.


don’t be annoyed [expression] Without exception a forebode of something extremely annoying. Speaker wants to avoid wahala (see part 1) and tries to butter up the person who might cause the foreseen trouble. ‘Don’t be annoyed’, my landlady implored as it turned out my promised prepaid electricity meter would not be installed after all, leaving me the burden of guaranteed monthly visits to the PHCN office to complain about my crazy bills.


exposed [past participle] Refers to a Nigerian who is educated, more particularly who has been exposed to other cultural influences than those of his or her village. Implies at least an academic degree. It also (but not necessarily) can indicate the Nigerian in question has travelled abroad, preferably to the UK or the US, facts some will therefore never fail to mention in casual conversation (with the fake American or British accent to match). Anything in order to not be mistaken for a bush man. Exposedness does not in any way correlate with broad mindedness.


gist [noun, verb] Talk, gossip [pej], to talk. Used in American slang as a noun only. ‘Gimme the gist’, ‘Tell me what’s happening.’ Nigerians upgraded it to a verb and use it in the sense of ‘talking’. ‘I was gisting with my friends at the junction’ says the philanderer who wants his girlfriend to think he was innocently chatting with his buddies. Need not have a pejorative connotation. When it comes to amebos (see earlier) however, it definitely does: their gist is seldom benign.


on a good day [expression] Commonly used when one asks for an estimated travel time, either by road or airway. ‘On a good day you can make it from Ikeja to VI in 30 minutes’. ‘On a good day with no  delays or cancellations an Aero flight will take you from Abuja to Lagos in less than an hour’. But when is it ever a good day? Even Sundays and holidays cannot be trusted as such anymore. The expression merely illustrates what I have come to see as a typically Nigerian tendency for unfounded optimism. Never mind overwhelming evidence to the contrary, one always hopes for the best. It is the perfect foundation for mastering the art of ‘shuffering and shmiling’ Fela sang of.


pain [verb] To hurt. ‘Am I paining you?’ the doctor asked as he jabbed the intravenous needle into my hand for the fifth time after I had landed in the clinic with my first malaria (yes, white people visit the hospital when they have their first bout of malaria, read next week’s column). In my feverish state I understood ‘Am I paying you?’ I tried to reply it was actually me who was paying him – I had just parted with N10,000 as a downpayment for my hospital admission, but was too ill to speak. Only later did I realise he had inquired if he was hurting me as he was using my hands for pin cushions. Duh.


sister/brother [nouns] Not a strictly Nigerian phenomenon, to be found across Africa, and therefore one the Western visitor should be aware of. Calling someone a sister or a brother in the African context does not indicate you come from the same parents. It can refer to any kind of close connection between two people in the same age group. Either you have grown up together, are cousins far removed, sat next to each other in primary school, or come from the same village or ethnic background. It took me a while to figure that out. With shame I think back of my first reports in Mozambique over ten years ago, when I did not know this yet. I must have mixed up quite a lot of family ties, unwillingly describing the Pemba area in Northern Mozambique as a highly incestuous zone. Now I am used to following up with the question: ‘Same mother, same father?’ This is the example I always use to point out why translating words alone does not cut it. You also have to know the culture behind a language, otherwise you risk blundering like I did in Mozambique. Unfortunately we journalists rarely have or take the time to get to know that culture. That is why hit and run journalism in foreign countries often goofs up.


well done [expression] Greeting. The first time it was said to me, I was dumbfounded. I was sitting  on a wooden bench in a little close in Ebute Metta with a STAR, gisting with one of the street’s elders. What could the speaker possibly want to compliment me with? My beer intake? My ability to sit on hard surfaces? The fact I was chatting with a neighbour? The baba next to me set me straight. ‘Well done’ need not refer to the action (or in my case, inaction) you are undertaking. Even now I haven’t gotten accustomed to using it myself, because it feels odd. For similar reasons the greeting ‘How body?’ has never passed my lips: to me it comes across as a very impertinent question. But that’s Pidgin and subject for a different blog entirely.


without further ado [expression] Archaic English and for that reason still fashionable in Nigerian English. Big words are held in high esteem in Nigerian speech, especially in a somewhat official context. Nigerian speakers tend to overdo their speeches, both in length and in bloated vocabulary. When a speaker utters the phrase ‘without further ado’, do not let out a sigh of relief thinking he is rounding up and you can go find the chop that is the grand finale of any event. On the contrary: the orator is only just beginning.


to ease oneself [expression] Archaic English, to urinate. In this case the archaism serves a euphemistic purpose.


trafficate [verb], trafficator [noun] Archaic English, indicate direction, direction indicator.


 yesternight [adverb] Archaic English. Last night. A word of beautiful simplicity. I intend to use it generously in everyday speech, adding ‘yesteryear’ and, why not, ‘yesterweek’. I wonder how come Nigerians still use this Shakespearian word the Britons have forgotten long ago. Might show more than the already mentioned Nigerian preference of big words. I cannot help but wonder if British literature – Much Ado About Nothing‘s Claudio asks Hero: ‘What man he talk’d with you yesternight Out at your window betwixt twelve and one’ — has left more of a lasting impression on Nigerians than on the Brits themselves. What that says about the cultural awareness of the average Nigerian is subject for yet  another column. (I have been announcing many future columns here; I had better get along with it if I want to cover all remaining subjects before the Femke Becomes Funke series ends in March, a year after it started.)


you tried [expression] Form of appraisal. I however still tend to take it is an insult disguised as a compliment. It was the reaction of my Nigerian friend in the Netherlands last winter, after he tasted my first home made moin-moin. ‘You tried’, he said, leaving me with the feeling I surely had a lot more kitchen experimenting to do before my steamed bean cake would be edible. Let me just say I hope not too many of the comments on this particular blog will tell me that at least, ‘you tried’.


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 (5)

  1. Yes o! She dey really try!! (Wink wink)

  2. Femke you try oh! You managed to decode all our big big "grammar". Thanks to you, I now know "yesternight" is Shakesperean english! I always thought it was a portmanteau word from "yesterday" and "night". By the way, I'm exposed so I'm allowed to use big big grammar without further ado !

  3. Lol! You had me laughing here and there! We definitely love to use big words. With all that I've been learning in the last few years, I've developed a fondness for simple, concise expression. But I worry I may not be taken seriously. smh!

  4. One thing I love about this Femke Becomes Funke is that 'she dey try well well'.

  5. You really tried I hope this is better. LOL.

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