By Hassan Abdulbaqi


“What is the meaning of this? I want you to tell me the number of men you have seen on top of me!”, my secondary school mother said -her countenance in a fiery anger as her eye blew hot like a live coal. I don’t understand this show of anger and pouring out of questions until I knew the implication of what I did. It was the culture then in my secondary school days that the opposite sexes were not allowed to mix freely together or grow any intimate bond with each other. The hostels were far apart and dialogues were always hastened between opposite sex so that you don’t earn the wrath of the principal, become the major character in the “gist” of all students or get a query from the hostel master. Hastened dialogues were not satisfactory and many students started writing each other instead. You can be in class and start corresponding the person beside you, and that made me smile when my lecturer for Elements of Communication in the university said it does not make sense for people in the same place to write each other. Back then, it does make sense to open my locker and see one or other letters- as if I got them from a post office. It was like a “real life Whatsapp” where mobile phones were not needed. This is because you can compose the message, wrap gifts in it and even draw smileys. To cut the long story short, in that occurrence, I decided to inform my school mother who just “offended me” – the kinds of offence that you cook up in order to make people say “sorry” even when there is nothing to be sorry about. And as it was the culture, I decided to write her. In the letter, I described her as being promiscuous; I thought promiscuous is a person that makes a promise but never fulfils them. I have always seen the word in short story books where writers use it to describe a woman who leaves her lover without fulfilling the vow that she will marry him. So, I thought it has to do with people who don’t fulfill vows. That must be its meaning, at least the word started with promis..! That day, I went back to the class, after my school mother had left me in anger to check the meaning of promiscuous; it is a word that is used to describe a person who has “many sexual partners”! I was alarmed! It was a costly mistake I ever made. From then, I learnt that checking a good dictionary for words we hear or read is so important before we parrot such words. A good dictionary provides more than meaning, it also gives us the proper pronunciation of words and the idioms and phrasal verbs that are used with a particular word, and its correct usage. The ideal dictionary will teach that you not to say “return back” because “back” is already in the word “return”. It will let you know that “tout” and “thug” are not synonyms neither are “memorize” and “cram”. When I started this discussion on social media, a commenter wrote: “That happened to me this morning. I was ordering a service from a client. Then, I used a vocabulary I have being using for some time now without cross checking the dictionary. The client asked what I meant by that because he has not heard it as a professional parlance. So, I quickly checked; unfortunately, nothing of such exists in the dictionary!” And don’t let me tell the awful story of how a fellow student shouted in Yoruba “Blunder! There’s nothing like ‘still yet’ in English!” when he read a write-up I pasted on a notice board. My experiences merely taught me that consulting a good dictionary is quite important! Most people pick meanings of words from other people, most meanings ought to be learnt, not parroted. For my graduate thesis, I worked on technical translation which deals with fashion designing and clothing from English to Yoruba. Many things opened up to me during my research especially to our wrong usage expressions. I learn that “cat-walk” is a noun and not a verb. We always take cat-walk to mean “walking with pride” but it is actually “THE LONG STAGE that models walk on during a fashion show.” An intimate friend of mine almost became like me when he went for a pick and talk competition where he was to discuss about “Islam and Civilization”. The word “civilization” in our culture is always mentioned to describe something dirty. We often translate it to mean “jassi” in Yoruba language. So, we refer to a lady who is half-naked as being civilized but the lady in khimar is not civilized because we mistake civilization for conformity. It was this cultural interpretation in my friend’s mind that made him disassociate Islam from civilization. As we all know, knowing the meaning of a question is getting half of it. My friend thought the judges were not experts when the results were announced and he was not amongst the top three winners. How could that be? He came to realize later that most of the things he said are against his intent but of course, my friend must have heard about civilization many times before them. A word is not always what it seems to be on the surface, checking a good dictionary on its proper usage is essential, so that you don’t jump into hot water in the process of jumping into conclusion like me.


    1. One can never underestimate the use of dictionaries for we cannot rely solely on guesses most times especially in this part of the world where English is only a second language. A friend of mine told me about a fellow he sent to me, “he narrated his ordeal to me” because he thinks “ordeal” means “experience”

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