From 'Motherless Babies' to 'Babiless Mothers': A Sexist Metaphorical Transition of Female Undergraduates

By Yusuf, Yisa Kehinde | Women and Language, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

From 'Motherless Babies' to 'Babiless Mothers': A Sexist Metaphorical Transition of Female Undergraduates


Yusuf, Yisa Kehinde, Women and Language


Introduction

The purpose of this study is to undertake a socio-psychological analysis of two interconnected slang expressions common amongst Nigerian university students: motherless babies and babiless mothers. The objective of the analysis is to reveal the significance of their usage in regard to the status and treatment of women.

To give focus to this paper and facilitate the realization of the objective, it is necessary to examine a number of relevant features of slang in general. According to Hartmann and Stork (1972), slang is:

a variety of speech characterized by newly coined and rapidly changing vocabulary, used by the young or by social and professional groups for 'in-group' communication and thus tending to prevent understanding by the rest of the speech community.

This definition may be supplemented with Pei and Gaynor's (1960, p. 199) view that slang is "produced by popular adaptation and extension of the meaning of existing words," but Pei and Gaynor's further assertion that these slang-producing methods are "with disregard for scholastic standards and linguistic principles of the formation of words" is not supported by a wide range of subsequent slang studies including Flexner (1974), Oho (1989) and Arua (1990).

Although slang is often regarded as inappropriate for formal discourse (Dumas and Lighter, 1978), Flexner (1974, p. 76) notes that slang is used "because it is more forceful, vivid and expressive than standard usage." Flexner further notes that slang may be picturesquely metaphorical (see also Partridge, 1971). This element of the metaphorical is of particular relevance for the present study.

Through their beauty or aptness and hidden power, metaphors bring to our notice or peremptorily invite us to discover surprising analogies, similarities, or common attributes (Davidson, 1979; Swanson, 1979; Miller, 1979). The analogical characteristic of slang is demonstrated by the slang terms "xerox" and "mouthorgan" which are included in Arua's (1990) study of students' slang used in Nigerian universities. To "xerox" means to memorize with the exactness and permanence with which a Xerox machine would produce photocopies from the original document. A "mouthorgan" is a corncob from which the corn is eaten directly by holding it to the mouth with one or both hands in the same manner in which mouth-organists handle their instrument.

Slang, in addition to its analogical nature, appears to be rooted in, linked with, or originate from contemporary social events or beliefs. The use of the slang "cocaine" and "by-election," also included in Arua's (1990) study, illustrates this contemporary social connection. Cocaine is the slang for gari - a fine, grainy, whitish or yellowish Nigerian staple food produced by cassava. It acquired this slangy label when its price shot up dramatically in response to the Nigerian government's economic policies of the mid-nineteen eighties; the same timeframe in which traffic in cocaine began to boom in this country. Thus, for students who could not afford to buy the staple food, it became as dear as cocaine; and for those who had gari in their possession, as economically precious as the high-priced drug. Similarly, 'by-election' became the slang for a resit examination during the early nineteen eighties when the country came under democratic civilian rule. It is important to note in relation to this fact, that prior to the inception of the Nigerian Second Republic and active civilian politics in 1979, resit examinations were slangily referred to as "September conferences."

The slang motherless babies and babiless mothers, with which this work is most centrally concerned, appear to share these common features of analogical nature and link with contemporary social events or beliefs described above, as will become evident in the analysis to follow.

The Context of the Slang

At this point, a specification of the contextual background of these slang terms is appropriate.

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