- Post 16 October 2010
- Last Updated on 16 October 2010
- By Farooq A. Kperogi
I’ve lost count of the number of times Americans have asked me why the Nigerian president has a common Western first name (Jonathan) as his last name. These queries remind me of the question the late Chief Abraham Adesanya asked former ThisDay editor Bolaji Abdullahi when the latter introduced himself to the Chief on the phone. “Bolaji what?” the late Yoruba leader asked. “Why not Abdullahi Bolaji?”
Americans—and other Westerners— seem to also be asking, “Goodluck what? Why not Jonathan Ebele—or any other name but a Western first name?” In the West, last names, also called family names or surnames, are the names often used to identify members of one family (dad, mom, children, paternal cousins, paternal grandparents, etc) and sometimes to trace a family tree. They are distinguished from first or given names, which are for the most part common, by the fact that they are usually unique. Of course, many hitherto unique last names have now become so commonplace that they might as well be first names. Common examples are Smith, Doe, Adams, Brown, etc.
But the concept of the family name is either non-existent or entirely new in most Nigerian cultures--and, for that matter, in most non-Western cultures. When I started elementary school in Nigeria, for instance, I was only asked of my first name and my “father’s name,” not my family name. Of course, I gave my father’s first name, Adamu, an African Muslim rendering of the Semitic name, Adam. And so I had been known as Farooq Adamu for the first 24 years of my life.
But my own father, who was a teacher in the same school, is known and addressed as Adamu Kperogi, Kperogi being my grandfather’s first name. So if you didn’t know us, you would never guess that I was related to my dad since there are a thousand and one Adamus in my community. The absurdity of my names only dawned on me when I was 25 and already a journalist. I realized that my names denuded me of an identity.
It was then I swore a court affidavit and changed the order of my names: I “demoted” Adamu to a middle name, excised my former middle name completely, and added Kperogi—a unique name exclusively associated with my family—as my last name. Many of my paternal cousins had been bearing Kperogi. Until I changed my names, few people knew they were my relations.
My experience typifies the naming dilemma many Nigerians grapple with. The name Jonathan is, of course, President Goodluck Jonathan’s dad’s first name. I am certain that his paternal cousins have a different last name from him. And it won’t be unusual if the president’s children bear “Goodluck” as their last name. Well, because the culture of last names seems to be taking roots in Nigeria now, Jonathan’s children may well adopt “Jonathan” as their last name. His grandchildren may also bear Jonathan as their last name. But the truth is that almost no one bears “Jonathan” as a last name in the West from where the name is borrowed; it’s a first name in the class of Moses, John, William, Adam, etc.
Interestingly, although Nigerians are nonchalant about last names—in ways that both surprise and amuse Westerners—we do really subconsciously pay attention to last names that are distinctive. For instance, we talk of the Aguyi Ironsi regime, the Gowon regime, but talk of the Murtala regime. It should have been the Muhammed regime; the full name of Olusegun Obasanjo’s predecessor is Murtala Muhammed. But Muhammed is such a common name (actually, it's the most common name in the whole wide world) that it is easy to forget.
We also call the former Nigerian Vice President “Atiku” instead of “Abubakar,” his last name. This is also because, like Muhammed, Abubakar is so common that it is easily forgettable. And we're confused what to call Abdulsalami Abubakar because both first and last names are common. The less common Abdulsalami seems to be increasingly preferred by headline writers in Nigerian newspapers. The lack of a last-name culture in Arab societies from where these names are borrowed is partly to blame for this.
Our blithe unconcern for the importance of first and last names is reflected in the annoying habit of many Nigerians who write their last names first and their first names last even in informal contexts. For people whose first and last names are undistinguished to start with, this can make identification a strain. I have, for instance, received friendship requests on Facebook from people I’d lost touch with a long time ago. But their first names, by which I’d known them, would often appear last and their last names, which I didn’t quite know, would appear first. Of course, I rejected such requests. They would then send me messages to remind me where they knew me.
This awkward naming habit is a holdover from the practice in schools where last names are written first in the school register to make sorting easy for teachers and administrators. But every country in the West that I know of also writes people’s last names first on school records, but this has not predisposed citizens of these societies to write their last names first in informal, out-of-school contexts.
The Grammar of Titles
Then, you come to titles. In the West, titles such as Mrs., Mr., Dr., Professor, Sir, Dame, etc appear either with first and last names combined or with last names alone. For example, it’s either “Mr. John Smith” or “Mr. Smith” but not “Mr. John.” We don’t respect that order in our everyday social interactions in Nigeria. Titles are regularly prefixed to people’s first names.
But what cracks me up big time is the Nigerian practice of prefixing “Mrs.” to a combination of married women’s first names and their husbands’ first names. For instance, Mrs. Gloria Fulani, whose husband is known as John Fulani, could be addressed as “Mrs. Gloria John.” I’m myself a “victim” of this ignorance. On my second daughter’s birth certificate, a Nigerian doctor wrote my wife’s name as “Mrs. Zainab Farooq”! Well, this practice owes its existence, again, to the absence of an established last-name culture in Nigeria that I talked about earlier.
It’s noteworthy that in conventional British English, Mrs. is traditionally only used with a woman’s husband’s first and last names (e.g. Mrs. John Fulani) rather her with a woman’s first name and her husband's last name (e.g. Mrs. Gloria Fulani) unless she’s a peer’s daughter (which would cause her be addressed as Lady Gloria Fulani). This is now becoming outmoded because it's decidedly chauvinistic. Similarly, in British society, women used to be addressed by their last names only (e.g. Mrs. Fulani) if they were servants or criminals.
And in modern British and American English, it is grammatically wrong to use “Miss” or “Mrs.” along with other titles, so that a woman doctor can’t be called “Dr. (Mrs.) Gloria Fulani.” Choose only one title. Of course, in a society like Nigeria where women rightly have a need to flaunt their professional and marital achievements, this rule will never be obeyed.
Abuse and Misuse of Titles
Our “big” men and women have adopted the habit of taking on Western titles whose histories and sociological content they seem to have not a scintilla of awareness about. The most abused Western titles in Nigeria are “Sir” and “Dame.” In British culture, a “Sir” is a man who is honored by the Queen or King of England for chivalry or other personal merit. A “Dame” is the female equivalent of a “Sir.” But there is a certain famous “Dame” we all know in Nigeria who is only just now learning to shed her Okrika rusticity and who couldn’t possibly have been knighted by the Queen of England. But she nonetheless swanks her “Dameness.”
Other popular British titles are “Lord,” “Lady,” and “the Hon.” (short for Honorable). Lord and Lady are used with the first name for the sons and daughters of dukes and marquesses: e.g. Lord John; Lady Elizabeth. But they are used with the last name elsewhere. Similarly, “the Hon.” is used with the first name for the children of viscounts, barons, and life peers and peeresses, and for the younger sons of earls. E.g. The Hon. William Adams. In Nigeria, however, “the Hon.” title has been hijacked by vain politicians and is now prefixed to the names of members of the Federal House of Representatives, ministers, commissioners, chairmen of local governments, and councilors of wards. Not to be outdone, members of the Nigerian Senate have invented a hitherto non-existent title that they call “Distinguished Senator.” These days, people just call them “Distinguished,” as if the word “distinguished” were a noun!
I find it curious that that our attitude to Western titles is as influenced by our own local traditions as our local traditions are influenced by our understanding of Western titles. In the north, for instance, “Alhaji” and “Malam” are always prefixed to people’s first names alone—or with their first and last names combined but never with their last names alone, unlike in the West where titles are prefixed to the last names of adults. Same with “Chief” and such other titles in the South.
However, our journalists now habitually mix and confuse the Western naming convention with the Nigerian naming practice, so that it is usual to see a “Musa Labo” addressed as “Alhaji Labo” on second reference in news reports. But it is “Musa” who went to Mecca and earned the title of “Alhaji” for himself, not his dad or granddad, “Labo,” who is probably an “Alhaji” himself. Same applies to the title Chief and its many local variants in southern Nigeria.
Politics and conventions of address
In the West, how people are addressed—i.e., whether or not titles are prefixed to their names—is often indicative of levels of familiarity and social distance or intimacy. Calling people by their first names without titles usually indicates that you are on very familiar, friendly terms with them. And calling them by their titles and full names or titles and last names indicates social distance, the kind of social distance that exists, say, between teachers and students or between total strangers on opposite ends of the social scale.
On other occasions, addressing people with their title and last name (such as Mr. Smith) when you are their social equal or their social superior can indicate cold detachment, even hostility. And calling people by their first name when they are older than you, are your social superiors, are not sufficiently known to you, or have not explicitly permitted you to do so is considered rude.
But this is not the case in Nigeria. Very close friends write letters to each other and sign off as “Mr. Somebody” or “Dr. Somebody Someone,” or “Professor Big man.” In the West, signing off a letter with your title and last name to a friend would indicate hostility, arrogance, or social awkwardness. That’s the basis of the Western expression “we are on first-name terms.”
There are exceptions to this convention in America, though. In the American south, for instance, it is customary for children to prefix “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” “Miss” or “Ms.” to people’s first names to indicate both familiarity and respect: the mention of the first name indicates familiarity and warmth, while the affixation of the title indicates courtesy and respect. This is now becoming a national tradition that even adults use jocularly. This practice has been around in Nigeria, for a different reason, for as long as I’ve been alive.
Finally, in the West, it is considered bad form to introduce yourself to people with your titles. For instance, it is socially awkward to introduce yourself to a new person by saying, “I’m Professor John Danfulani.” But this is common practice in Nigeria. That's considered pompous.
What of False Titles?
A related phenomenon is “false titles,” that is, creating titles out of professional callings. Nigerian lawyers prefix the title “Barrister” to their names. Architects prefix “Arch.” to their names. Pharmacists prefix “Pharm.” to theirs. Which profession have I left out? Nigerian journalists seem to be the only people left out in this false title craze. “Journ” would be a nice title for journalists!
But, seriously, in the West, only medical doctors, Ph.Ds, and (serving) ambassadors prefix professional titles to their names. Every other person contends with Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. In Britain, the range of titles is, of course, wider because the Queen knights people for personal merit.
It is noteworthy that what grammarians call “false titles” didn’t start with Nigerians. It was actually started by Time magazine and is now the stuff of journalese (English distinctive to journalistic writing). In native English societies, false titles are understood as prefixing the name of a professional activity to the name of a person, e.g. “footballer Nwankwo Kanu has retired from the national team.”
The false title is useful for journalists because it saves space. But all journalistic writing conventions in Britain and America say false titles should not be capitalized (e.g. Footballer Nkwankwo Kanu) since they’re not “real” titles. They should also not be separated by a comma (e.g., it’s wrong to write, “famous footballer, Nwanko Kanu”) from the name they precede. But this is precisely what Nigerians have perfected. False titles are not only capitalized, they have been mainstreamed as “real” titles.
All this wouldn’t matter if we only related to each other in Nigeria. But the reality of globalization has forced us to relate with people in other parts of the world more frequently than we did in the past. I know that many Westerners are often confused by our naming conventions, especially because they are often a poor imitation of their ways. So it helps to know that there is grammatical logic to naming and titles.
1. A Comparison of Nigerian, American and British English