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Inflation: A lexical theory by Olatunji Dare

This is as good a time as any to revisit a hypothesis I first laid out several decades ago, most likely in a column for The Guardian.

Back then, inflation was running at a brisk pace that no one dared mention for fear of being charged with a crime against National Security or banished to Gashua, in the remote Northeast of Nigeria, the unlikeliest candidate then for host to a federal university.  Ask the venerable Professor TS David-West.

But the rate of inflation could not have been lower than what obtains today – 18. 5 per cent, most likely understated.  The “settlement culture” was flourishing as never before, especially in the wake of the “June 12” crisis, and the Mint was sent into overdrive to churn out the lolly.

The political terrain was saturated with cash, and the Central Bank knew better than to even create the illusion that it was mopping up excess liquidity; doing so would have subverted the settlement culture under-girded by national policy.

Today, ever so often, the Central Bank steps in to sell treasury bonds and take other measures to curb excess liquidity and thus tame inflation.  Yet, despite the CBN’s exertions, that pesky metric stands at a disconcerting 18.5 per cent.

With this background, I can now proceed to the hypothesis I adumbrated several decades ago.  I called it the literary theory of inflation.  In retrospect, I have re-christened it the lexical theory of inflation.

Now, according to the best authorities, inflation is the rate at which the general level of prices of goods and services is rising and, consequently, the purchasing power of currency is falling.

That seems to be the condition of the Nigerian economy today.  There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for it.  Two close relations tell me that within a week of taking out N100, 000 from the bank, it is all gone, with little to show for it.  They tell me they have to make an inventory of their purchases and spending just to convince themselves that they had not been chiseled out of the money by a pick-pocket or a shopkeeper.

How those who earn the minimum wage of N18,000 a month – which many state governments say they cannot pay, and have in any case not paid for six months running – how such people live from one day to the next must be one of the nation’s best-kept secrets.

At this point, the reader must be wondering:  What has lexis got to do with inflation?

Lexical inflation, as I operationalise it in this submission, is the rate at which the idiom, the vocabulary of public discourse is billowing, consequently eroding the power and meaning of language.

My lexical theory of inflation holds that, in a given setting, all things being equal, the lexical inflation varies directly as the rate of inflation in the general economy.  In other words, as the general level of prices for goods and services increases, the idiom, the grammar of public discourse balloons, leading to the degradation of language.

This formulation does not pretend to the rigor, the tight coherence of those social science theories that have stood the test of time. I hope an accomplished scholar, or at the very least,  an ambitious graduate student desirous of earning a place in the world of learning, will judge it worthy of further inquiry and systematic explication.

For now, it is sufficient to call attention to some examples which appear to validate the theory, proceeding from a longitudinal perspective.

Remember that time when, according to General Yakubu Gowon, money was not a problem but how to spend it? The Udoji salary bonanza backdated one full year tested the absorptive capacity of Nigerian economy as never before, or since.  A friend of mine quipped then that money was not his problem all right, but how to find it.  On the whole, however, it was money, money, money everywhere.

In the inflationary spiral set off by the bonanza, goods and services became more expensive. Lexical inflation developed to match it, in keeping with my theory.

It was no longer sufficient to run a firm or a company.  It had to be a group of companies, even if both operated from the same cramped store front.  In short order, the “group of companies” was supplanted by the “group of industries.”

One example from that era clings in my memory:  The Abulu Group of Industries. You had to be visually impaired not to see its huge signboard on the facade of a two-storey building on Ikorodu Road, between Jibowu and Palmgrove in Lagos.  Its line of business was not stated.  But you stood in awe at the facility housing not just one industry but several industries, and of course, the self-effacing owner.

It was beneath one’s dignity to answer to the title of manager. To count for somebody, you had to be a chairman, or a managing director, or both.  And you could, for good measure, add a third:  chief operating officer.

Every large building became, first, a Complex, and then an Ultra-modern Complex.  Being a federal permanent secretary was no longer a sufficient distinction.  You had to be a super-permanent secretary.

There was this Lagos barber who owned a shop on Ojuelegba and another in Lawanson.  He ran them on alternate days, taking a break on Sundays. On account of that arrangement, his business card introduced him with touching modesty as managing director of a Barbers’ Group.  A more discriminating person would have named the arrangement The Capillary and Tonsorial Artists’ Group.

Now, fast-forward to the present.

There was a time when newspapers were content to have political editors, sports editors, features editors, business editors, science editors, and literary editors.   Not anymore.  To keep pace with the rampant inflation in the economy, the media have had to engage in some lexical inflation of their own.

The staffer formerly known as the political editor has since been re-designated “group political editor”   His or her colleagues on the other specialty desks have profited from the same lexical inflation.

Every hamlet in Nigeria is now a “kingdom,” over which a king or “monarch” rules dutifully, with a panoply of princes and princesses and king mothers and queen mothers and lesser royals.  When the monarch was just a paramount chief, he was content with the title “His Highness.” As lexical inflation gathered pace, he became His Royal Highness.

But that too is now passé.   To be considered a significant monarch, you must have His Majesty prefixed to your name.  But even that does not secure your status, since there just may be some majesties who are not royals.  So, better to insist on “His Royal Majesty.”

But why settle for that when you can take on the lexically formidable title of “His Imperial Majesty”?

Nigerian politicians have always felt that there was something not merely inchoate but frankly belittling in being called a State Governor.   Nor do they accept that the prefix “His Excellency”  truly reflects their status.  After all, ordinary career ambassadors are also entitled to the prefix.

So, to make the title reflect the gravity of the office, they insist on being called “Executive Governors.”  Senators do not want to be mistaken for members of the House of Representatives who are merely honourable; you have to call them “distinguished” even if most of them are distinguished only for being distinguished, like those of whom it has been said that they are famous only for being famous.

A final thought:  My theory holds, remember, that lexical inflation varies directly as the currency inflation in a given setting, all things being equal.  Consequently, when they pad the Budget remorselessly, they are preparing the ground for the kind of lexical inflation we have never experienced.

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