Lexical Choices -To begin with, it is safe to admit the likeliness of misconceptions and misrepresentations from the thesis of this piece. However, an unbiased perusal would make clear that my goal is not to condemn anyone or anything but to create awareness on the power of language, especially names and labels. Names are not as innocent as many think. Names create labels, enhance framing, mould identities, and carve ideologies, among other things.
In some parts of the world like Africa and in some religions like Islam, names are believed to have a spiritual force and binding. It is for this reason that the Yoruba (not, the Yorubas) say, “Orúkọ ní roni” (Names manifest in one’s life). In what is left of this piece, I will demonstrate the fervency of names and naming/labelling with examples from social and academic perspectives. This is with a view to establishing that naming and labelling are sometimes a conscious effort at mental-cum-psychological conditioning.
The heading of a news article published by Geoffrey Grider in 2018 says, “Pedophiles Are Now Calling Themselves ‘Minor Attracted Persons’ and Want Inclusion in the LGBTQ+ Movement”. Pedophiles would now prefer to be called MAPs (Minor Attracted Persons). Relating this to the concern of this article, if there is no adjustment to the activities of pedophiles, why the desire for a change of name? If names are as innocent as we think, why do you not want to be called the name that labels your act? Individuals and societies must understand the potency of names and naming in social constructions and re-engineering.
Moving a step farther, the term “sex work” was conceived in its modern usage by Carol Leigh as a reference to prostitutes and other workers in the sex industry with the political implication of a labour or worker’s perspective. After this effort by Carol Leigh in the 70’s, the Oxford Dictionary defines a sex worker as a person who works in the sex industry, especially a prostitute (usually used with the intention of reducing negative connotations and of aligning the sex industry with conventional service industries).
Once it was possible to popularise this new word, the perception, reception and promotion of prostitution changed drastically from the West to African countries. Nigerians who grew up from the 60’s to the 90’s may agree with me that brothels used to be found in hidden parts of society because it was not noble for both the prostitutes and those who patronise them to be associated with prostitution. But since the creation of the synonym, “sex workers”, brothels are now found anywhere, and both the prostitutes and their patronisers go about their venture with no worry, shame or concern for cultural values. Are words really innocent? In this age of social media, once Kemi spells her name as Khemmy and Sola spells his as Sholar, there is an emerging identity that no one may be mindful of until it is followed by certain attitudinal displays.
Moving to the academia, some words and labels which have been used to depict Nigeria in relation to other countries are deserving of clarification. As an example, a journal domiciled in Nigeria is tagged a local journal. The word “local” takes two different, though related, meanings. On the one hand, it means “from, existing in, serving, or responsible for a small area, especially of a country,” such as a local accent.
On the other hand, it means “existing in or belonging to the area where you live, or to the area that you are talking about.” While the second definition should capture the idea of a local journal in Nigeria, that is, a journal domiciled where one lives, it has rather become associated with the first definition which suggests journals restricted to their host countries and limited in their spread in terms of contributors, editorial team and other markers of prestige. While wondering how the word “local” got consolidated as a natural collocation for Nigerian journals, the bigger worry is why we prefer to refer to journals published outside of the country as “international”, and not just “foreign” journals. The choice of “foreign” would suggest journals published away from one’s country while “international” takes the meaning of having a global spread. Why then would we be so mindless of labels to the extent that our choices put our credibility into question?
This has a great effect on the psyche of many Nigerian academics who feel their less substantial intellectual works should go to their own local journals, and their well-researched papers should be sent to the international outlets. It is exactly the same case with referring to our own indigenous languages as local languages or, even more ridiculously, as vernaculars, while referring to English as an international language. This has affected the psyche of many Nigerians and has resulted in raising children who cannot express themselves in their indigenous languages. There are households where parents do not even speak their languages to their children because they wish to raise them with international, not local, languages.
I wish to conclude this treatise by saying that, “Once you create a word for anything in a language, then you create a space for it in society.” I submit, therefore, that the Nigerian people and the Nigerian government should not trivialise the phenomenon of name and naming/labelling, as this has a high societal significance.
Ganiu Bamgbose writes from the Department of English, Lagos State University.