Dejobbed, bewifed, and much childrenised

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That's the title of a post (October 13, 2011) on "Letters of Note: Correspondence deserving of a wider audience," a fascinating website hosted by Shaun Usher. It refers to this letter sent to the British Embassy in Calabar, Nigeria in 1929 by a disgruntled employee named Asuquo Okon Inyang who had been fired, apparently for slacking off on the job:

Mr. Asuquo Okon Inyang vies with Shakespeare in his ability to coin new English words, but we shouldn't think that all of the words in this magnificent epistle with which we are unfamiliar were created by him. For example, just before his closing, he writes, "So mote it be — Amen". According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of "mote" — which means "may" or "might" and is cognate with "must" — goes back to before the 12th century. Thus not only was Mr. Asuquo Okon Inyang extraordinarily inventive in his use of words, he was also widely enough read to be familiar with such an archaic word as "mote".

[A tip of the hat to Gene Hill]

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39 Comments »

  1. Nathan said,

    October 19, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

    "your pocket filled with non-existent LSD"? I think the LSD is somewhere else by this point.

  2. Lurra said,

    October 19, 2011 @ 11:27 pm

    @Nathan: I believe the "L" in "L S D" is the symbol for the British pound (£), though I don't know enough about history or currency to decipher the "S D" in this context. I agree, however, that interpreting it as "LSD" is much more humourous.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    October 19, 2011 @ 11:31 pm

    It's £sd, an abbreviation for "pounds, shillings, pence" (from Latin "librae, solidi, denarii").

  4. Grep Agni said,

    October 19, 2011 @ 11:41 pm

    @Lurra: £SD = pounds shillings pence

    Until 1971 here were 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. according to Wikipedia:

    'Prior to decimalisation, the pound was divided into 20 shillings and each shilling into 12 pence, making 240 pence to the pound. The symbol for the shilling was "s."—not from the first letter of the word, but from the Latin solidus. The symbol for the penny was "d.", from the French denier, from the Latin denarius (the solidus and denarius were Roman coins). A mixed sum of shillings and pence, such as 3 shillings and 6 pence, was written as "3/6" or "3s. 6d." ….'

    Basically "£ S D" just means money.

  5. David Moser said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 4:01 am

    I wonder if Rogers & Hart were influenced by this when he penned their classic song "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

    I'm wild again!
    Beguiled again!
    A simpering, whimpering child again/
    Bejobbed, bewifed and much childrenized am I.

  6. GWS said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 4:20 am

    Was he rejobulated?

  7. Scott said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 4:41 am

    The original image, from Britain's National Archives, can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/5436245442/

  8. Electric Dragon said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 4:44 am

    "So mote it be" is a phrase used, I believe, in Masonic ritual, and later much used by "the Rev. Magister" (aka the Master) in the 70s Doctor Who serial The Daemons.

  9. Mark Etherton said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 5:52 am

    The addressee of the letter can't be 'the British Embassy in Calabar', since in 1929 Nigeria was a British colony, with a Governor-General (then Sir Graeme Thomson). While British control was to some exercised through traditional local rulers, contact with them would have been through district officers (career officials of the Colonial Service) and not through Embassies, which at the time were only in important sovereign states.

    [(myl) Indeed. The source -- The National Archives UK's photostream on Flickr -- says only :

    co1069-65-67

    Description: Letter of complaint from dismissed official ("dejobbed person").
    Date: February 2nd 1929
    Location: Calabar, Nigeria
    Our Catalogue Reference: Part of CO 1069/65

    This image is part of the Colonial Office photographic collection held at The National Archives, uploaded as part of the Africa Through a Lens project. Feel free to share it within the spirit of the Commons.

    Our records about many of these images are limited. If you have more information about the people, places or events shown in an image, please use the comments section below. We have attempted to provide place information for the images automatically but our software may not have found the correct location.

    And

    This photo was taken on February 11, 2011 in Calabar, Cross River, NG.

    Maybe someone in Calabar knows something more, such as what file it came from, and what other information about the case might have been preserved.]

    ]

  10. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 6:22 am

    How could anyone, reading such a Jeremiad, not rejobulate such a servant?
    I do so hope that (after that mention of Daniel) he wasn't re-Job-ulated.

  11. bkd69 said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 7:22 am

    I'm reminded more of the Don Marquis than Shakespeare.

  12. Ben said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 8:49 am

    Someone once told me it's best to write poetry in a language other than your native one; I think this makes a strong case for that. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever read; "the verge of the abyss of destitution and despair," "with as much alacrity as may be compatible with your personal safety," "myself who has pitched sixteen infant children into this valley of tears"—I wish I could write like that. And from now on, I'll try.

  13. Charles Gaulke said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 9:07 am

    What's really astonishing is just how similar parts of this seem in both style and content to the (I had thought) computer-generated spam e-mails most of us have received from Nigeria. This is more coherent, of course, and generally better composed, but I think those messages make a lot more sense as failed attempts at this than as failed attempts at the sort of English we speak and write today.

  14. Laura said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 9:24 am

    Also: great use of subjunctive! "It were impossible that…". I don't know if it's correct, what with me having been educated in Britain in the 80s/90s, but I like it even if it's not right. I can't decide if it's counterfactual or not; the impossibility isn't, but what's impossible is.

  15. Ben Hemmens said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    Old-fashioned English grammar school gone bonkers? Possibly some influence of Latin?

    rejobulate!

  16. David L said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 10:13 am

    A very wonderful letter, but alas I think there is a mistake, fourth line from the bottom, where he has put 'milestone' for what should be, I believe, 'millstone.' The 'nether millstone' would be the one on the bottom, which bears the brunt of all the grinding and crushing imposed from Above….

  17. S.Norman said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 10:15 am

    This is from an old British annual:

    http://web.archive.org/web/19980629002818/http://www.wusb.org/psycdeli/pix/lsdis.jpg

    He would get a different answer today

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    There seem to be some broad resemblances to the florid/oddly-archaic South Asian register sometimes if perhaps pejoratively known as "Babu English." Just as there are sometimes said to be similarities between pidgins from widely different parts of the world (where the local languages interacting with the European language bear no historical relation to each other), perhaps there are worldwide commonalities in the results of colonial subjects trying to master an exalted/formal register of the colonizer's tongue and not quite getting it right? Was there any parallel phenomenon in French colonies?

    @Mark Etherton: Poking around wikipedia, it seems that prior to the centralization of colonial governance in Lagos, one of the early British protectorates on the coast was based in Calabar. The proconsuls who in practice ruled these things tended to be given euphemistic titles that were supposed to make them sound like diplomatic emissaries to the indigenous authorities rather than de facto governors (sometimes "High Commissioner," although there was plenty of variation). So as of the late 1920's it is plausible that the colonial administrative building in Calabar had a prior history as a pseudo-embassy and might have colloquially been referred to as such.

  19. John said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    You get a similar style in Indian English – I think it might be something to do with being taught using Victorian teaching materials (or at least, one generation being taught this way and subsequent generations learning the dialect thus created).

  20. Nancy Friedman said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

    I propose "Rejobulate Main Street" as the official slogan of Occupy Wall Street.

  21. Leonardo Boiko said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

    Ben: Reading Venuti’s Scandals of Translation convinced me that (contrary to current practice) we would get interesting results if we tried letting native speakers translate from their L1 to others, for much the same reasons.

    As for your wish to write as interestingly as Mr Inyang (yīnyáng?)… Have you considered learning a new language? =)

  22. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    The phrase "pocket filled with non-existent" money is wonderful. It makes me think of a long-distance truck driver I used to know, who often said that he hated driving a truck when it was "full of an empty load." I was never quite sure if he was serious or joking.

  23. Mercy said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

    I am bemused but not a bit surprised at the missive of the estranged Mr. Inyang, which would be typical of most nigerians found in his position at such a time, not forgetting the relationship between colonial masters and the 'natives' at that time.

    We Nigerians can be quite verbous and have an ability to use language; especially when the language use indicates prestige.

    To say the least, there are thousands of Mr. Inyangs all over our beloved country today, if we would care to bemuse ourselves and listen to them; starting for instance with Hon. Patrick Obahiagbon (just a click on youtube would suffice).

    Also, this letter brings to bear the fact that there is such a thing as 'Nigerian English', which may not be too evident for non Nigerians….or the 'been tos' who would be quick to point out grammatical errors or incorrectness in other speakers.

    Take for instance “who was violently dejobbed in a twinkling by your goodself” which I would simply understand to be something like: “who was suddenly dismissed by your goodself”.

    Personally, this structure (syntax, semantics, etc) isn't new. Mr. Inyang needed to use such imagery and reality to send his message home. It is a plea of a distraught man, albeit with unintended humour (typical of people from that part of Nigeria). I would recommend further research and study of 'nigerian english' to anyone who's interested; you'd be surprised at your findings.

    Cordialement,
    Mercy (an ardent reader of language log)

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 4:20 pm

    @Ben Hemmens: The KJV for Job 41:24, which is about Leviathan, is "His heart is as firm as a stone; yea, as hard as a piece of the nether millstone."

    Mr. Inyang seems to have spent time in church as well as at the Masonic lodge.

    Next: Striking and Picturesque Delineations of the Grand, Beautiful, Wonderful, and Interesting Scenery Around Loch-Earn.

  25. ohwilleke said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    Are we truly to believe that poor dejobbed Mr. Asuquo Okon Inyang is himself inventing the words? It would seem far more plausible that he is speaking a Nigerian dialect of English that prevailed in the late 1920s and arose from substrate influence of adult learners of the language applying constructions from their mother tongue to their new language which there were not enough English colonial native speakers to prevent from becoming accepted parts of the dialect. Presumably, in the absence of native speakers, the most fluent speakers in the local dialect likewise had to rely on written sources, often archaic or poetic, rather than ideomatic sources, in many instances to come up with turns of phrase as well.

  26. Colin said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    G.V. Desani's _All About H. Hatterr_ has the same general kind of wordplay and inventiveness. One of the funniest books ever written, if you can get your hands on a copy.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

    Sorry, I don't know how I turned "David L." into "Ben Hemmens".

  28. Ray Girvan said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 7:11 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: trying to master an exalted/formal register

    Very likely. I just dug out a book I've had around since way back – Brian Jackson's 1965 English versus Examinations, whose intro mentions the syndrome of correspondence colleges for the colonial market teaching an 'English' in a form highly markable in exams, but bearing little resemblance to idiomatic English as used by native speakers.

    The bottom is reached when correspondence colleges are teaching and testing such trivial yet markable linguistic lore as: 'Hight' is the only finite passive in English, e.g. This grisly beast which lion hight by name. 'Hight' is laughable, and there's an end of it. But at more ordinary levels it is curious how the niceties and aspirations of one kind of middle-class English are the only contact 'English' has with any language in actual use.

  29. Randy Hudson said,

    October 20, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

    I agree with John that Victorian teaching materials must have something to do with this style of second-language English. Years ago in Egypt I ran into a bright friendly young man eager to practice his English on Americans. At one point he was chatting about his family, and mentioned "My sister is with child and will bear me a son."

  30. pj said,

    October 21, 2011 @ 4:13 am

    As a born-post-decimalisation Brit, my first encounter with 'LSD' was in this song, which was on one of the tapes my parents would entertain us as young children with in the car.

    I wonder if he got his job back. You don't like to think of him falling prey to his five savage wives and sixteen voracious children in the den of doom, especially not with a talent for vivid writing like that, poor chap.

  31. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 21, 2011 @ 10:58 am

    A question derived from Mercy's comment: Mercy treats "goodself" as one of the unexceptional words in the letter. I've encountered that word only in reading Rushdie; it's not used in American English. Can anyone tell me its geographical range?

  32. pj said,

    October 21, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

    @Jon Weinberg
    Amongst the citations in the OED under 'good' as 'an epithet of courteous address or respectful reference. Now often jocular or depreciatory', (with specific mention of 'your good self (or selves)' as 'a commercial form of polite address or reference') there is this from the Daily Mail in 1923: It is more than probable our next orders will be placed with your good-selves.
    And this from the Daily Telegraph in 1967: I have always understood that the words ‘goodself’ and ‘goodselves’ related to credit-worthiness.
    So apparently it exists (or has recently existed) in BrE, but in my own third of a century as a BrE speaker, I can't say I remember coming across it written as other than two separate words until I read this letter.

  33. Jordan said,

    October 21, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

    The Pretty Things played around with the £sd/LSD ambiguity in 1966:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXzgMQM0B-8

  34. Ken Brown said,

    October 21, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

    Three unworthy thoughts:

    Eleven pounds a month would have been a decent wage in Britain in the 1920s. A fortune in Nigeria. This bloke must have been in a very senior position for an African – between Lord Lugard's reforms at the end of the 19th century and the second world war Africans were systematically squeezed out of higher positions in the colonial service.

    Its not like any vernacular Nigerian English I ever heard. (and I hear a lot). That is booklearned.

    "So mote it be" feels odd. A bit synthetic. (and a bit Buffy) I'd hate for this to be a spoof but….

  35. Michael Rank said,

    December 26, 2011 @ 6:03 am

    An extraordinary letter, so wonderful it occurred to me that it could be a spoof???!! Although the letter is in the National Archives (apparently) the Flickr page http://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/5436245442/ says the photo was taken in Calabar, Nigeria. Is there more to this than meets the ocular organ, I ask your goodselves?

  36. Ian Preston said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 6:36 am

    I think this must be a spoof. Here is the same letter attributed to a Japanese civil servant, Akono Subusu and again here. Here it is attributed to Akuko Subash. Here to someone called Kuko Murasti. You can find many versions just by Googling, often coming with the added couplet supposedly appended by the District Officer: "Gentle reader do not sob — X has been rejobbed."

  37. Ian Preston said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 6:49 am

    Two of those links don't seem to have come out right. Here they are again:

    Akono Subusu

    Akuko Subash

  38. Ian Preston said,

    February 2, 2012 @ 10:14 am

    The text of the letter appears, without any named sender or recipient, on a page with humorous poems in Punch (Vol 177, p 612, November 27, 1929), headed "Dejobbed (Being a letter from a dismissed employé in Nigeria)". Presumably this is the text from which later versions have been copied. Is the dating of this letter then definitely genuine or could it too have been copied from Punch with the addition of a fictional date, address and sender?

  39. Thomas said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    A lnk concernng Indian English

    http://www.quora.com/India/What-are-some-English-phrases-and-terms-commonly-heard-in-India-but-rarely-used-elsewhere

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