Despite a shared language, lost in translation encounters of riotous proportions await English-speaking travelers in Nigeria.
Nigeria is the giant of Africa. It has the largest population (over 200 million), a profitable film industry (Nollywood), and it’s currently enjoying global recognition as a culturally rich powerhouse—with hits on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart to boot. The British colonized this West African nation and departed its shores in 1960 leaving behind a legacy that would establish English as the official language. Nigerian English, however, is an amalgamation of British “Queen’s English,” cool Americanisms, and local languages (of which there are some 500). The result is a creative melee of “broken English” and words that, hilariously, have grown eternally distant from their original definitions. Nothing is as it seems.
Nigerians are alone in using “Dundee United” to earmark a fool or idiot. This utterance is not to be found in any English classroom. In fact, Nigerians themselves are none the wiser about where it comes from. Dundee United is the name of a Scottish professional soccer club that visited Nigeria in the ‘70s. Speculation is rife that their utterly disastrous tour is what gave birth to this saying. Another theory is that Dundee United’s rivals, Dundee F.C. fed this “fact” to visiting Nigerian soccer players during the 1989 under-16 World Championships that took place in Scotland. Rumors continue to swirl about its origins and it’s been instigating belly laughs for decades. If someone refers to you this way, they probably don’t hold your intelligence in high regard.
Use it in a sentence: “Of course I’m going to reserve in advance, I’m not a Dundee United.”
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A standard linguistic feature in Nigerian English is nouns being turned into verbs. For instance, when one feels abdominal pain they may express this as “my stomach is paining me.” The use of a car’s horn to produce a sound, therefore, becomes “horning” in Nigeria. This is a distortion of the verb for blaring the horn of a car which is “honking”. You’ll hear this when (not if) caught in one of Lagos’ infamous traffic jams or “go slow” as Nigerians call them.
Use it in a sentence: “Lagos taxi drivers are always horning.”
Remove your mind from auctions and power tools because when someone “hammers” in Nigeria, they’ve made it, blown up, gotten rich or hit the jackpot. It’s the act of coming into a considerable amount of money—legally or illegally. It can be heard in everyday speech as well as in popular songs (listen to “Don’t Dull” by Wizkid for instance). Take note: reaching this level of success may result in people “jealousing” you or being envious of your riches. Yes, “jealous” also becomes a verb in Nigeria.
Use it in a sentence: “Mary has a new international job, she has hammered o.”
“Trafficate” is a Nigerian exclusive that particularly bewilders non-Nigerian English speakers. This mystifying word refers to using the turn signal when driving and it stands in for “indicate.” While “trafficator” is an old British English word for blinkers or indicator lights, “trafficate” itself is simply a reincarnation and won’t be heard in any non-Nigerian household.
Use it in a sentence: “That driver is reckless, he doesn’t even trafficate.”
Merriam-Webster defines “dash” as “moving with sudden speed.” For Nigerians however, it’s a bribe or gift. This word is widespread in Nigerian speech, as older houseguests will often “dash” money to the children of their hosts before leaving. A “dash” will usually be given as a whole amount and not “installmentally”—another fabricated word which is a misuse of “in installments.”
Use it in a sentence: “Any dash for me?” or “Aunty, please dash me some money now.”
Deeply entrenched in Nigerian phraseology is “chop,” the word for eating. Saying “I want to chop” means “I want to eat” or “I’m hungry”. It should be noted that “chop” is a popular prefix for a multitude of slang phrases: “chop beans” is failing at something, “chop burger” means one has put on weight, “chop cockroach” is getting pregnant, “chop mouth” means kissing, “chop liver” (not “chopped liver”) is to be courageous or grow some balls, and “chopping money” means embezzling or making an excessive amount of money illegally.
Use it in a sentence: “You can come and chop at my house.”
Similarly confounding in Nigerian lexicon is “Toronto” which stems from a political scandal and it refers to a fake educational degree or certificate. In 1999, former House of Representatives speaker Salisu Buhari was found to have lied about studying at the University of Toronto. Not only did he fib about graduating (or even going there), he fudged with his date of birth and claimed to be seven years older than he was to be able to run for membership of the House of Representatives. At the time, he was the fourth most powerful man in Nigeria. You might hear “Toronto” when a document’s authenticity is called into question or when someone is planning to dabble in forgery. For example: “Peter didn’t really study abroad, that one is a Toronto situation” or “I’m going to organize one Toronto.” Careful though, if you get found out, you’ll be in deep trouble or “pepper soup.”
Use it in a sentence: “My documents are valid and authentic, this one is not Toronto.”
“Match” is one Anglophone word with a wholly unique Nigerian accent. It has nothing to do with the dating site or two people wearing identical clothing, oh no. “Match” is mimicry of “marching” and it refers to trampling on or stepping on someone. It’s also spelled as “mach.” Many an argument in Lagos’ crowded markets have begun with the question, “why are you matching me?”
Use it in a sentence: “Get out of my way before I match you.”
When “gisting” or having a chitchat with a Nigerian, they may reveal a story of someone that was conned by a “Yahoo.” This is a swindler or an individual that uses Yahoo email for fraudulent activities online. Variations include “Yahoo-Yahoo” and “Yahoo boys.”
INSIDER TIPDouble up. Nigerians are in the habit of saying words twice for added emphasis. Case in point: “cry-cry” for a cry baby, “beg-beg” for one who always begs, “bend-bend” for something illegal or corner-cutting and “follow-follow” for a person that copies others and never leads.
They tend to be young men conducting get rich quick schemes out of cybercafes. These scams go by the nickname “419” after Nigeria’s penal code for fraud. Many are imposters on online dating sites, sell items that don’t exist, buy items that are “paid for” with fake Western Union receipts, or carry out phishing schemes. So, if you ever receive an email from a dying African prince who seeks to bequeath his $5 million fortune to someone deserving but initially needs a wire transfer of $500 as proof of life, it was probably sent by a Nigerian Yahoo boy.
Use it in a sentence: “She was talking to a man online who said he was from Denmark but I think he was a Nigerian Yahoo boy.”
In addition to the universally accepted meaning of “corruption,” it’s common to hear the word “corrupt” being used to describe someone that’s wayward or sexually deviant. For men, it pinpoints a fellow that womanizes or likes to “carry woman.” When speaking of the fairer sex, it’s the opposite of a lady that’s “homely” or has good “home training”—polite behavior and good manners.
Use it in a sentence: “That boy is very corrupt, look how many girlfriends he has.”
When Nigerian English speakers say “casting” what they really mean is exposing somebody or something, relaying information told in confidence, or insulting someone. This meaning is alien to English speakers in the U.S. or Britain who are more used to seeing the word concerning the selection of performers for roles in entertainment productions. Expect to hear it when someone is being reprimanded for snitching, tattling, or being discourteous. Contrastingly, “cast” is used when a plan is derailed or something gets damaged or spoiled.
Use it in a sentence: “Ah ah, I told you that in confidence, why are you casting me?”
“Form” is another one that puzzles newcomers in Nigeria. To “form” means showing off or putting on a proud air to impress. When someone tells you to “stop forming” what your conversation counterpart is actually saying is that you ought to show some humility or stop pretending to be something you’re not. One might hear this when someone is putting on a fake British or American accent or talking too much about their riches or achievements.
Use it in a sentence: “Wale is always forming, he thinks he’s the only person that’s been abroad.”
“How far?” is another linguistic idiosyncrasy that Nigerians have absorbed that the rest of the Anglophone world has not. One would be forgiven for thinking it relates to distances but it’s actually a greeting and conversation starter. Visitors in Nigeria will hear this one a lot and it’s an informal way of saying “how are you?” and “what’s up?” or “how is everything?” or even “hi” or “hello.” Bear in mind that it could also be a rhetorical question. The person asking it may simply carry on speaking after saying “how far?” so it’ll be clear that no response is required anyway.
Use it in a sentence: “Brother, how far now?”
INSIDER TIPNigerians are fond of adding “o” and “now” at the end of their sentences. For optimum “Nigerianness” (and to get the best deals at markets) do the same. You’ll blend right in.
The Nigerian variety of English is curious and confounding, meaning that communication breakdowns are practically inevitable. Navigating these complexities, however, is all very much part of the fun.