Using and Understanding English

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By Dr Sarala Krishnamurthy

One utterance that has puzzled me for the past five years is the use of the expression, “Director of Ceremonies”. I have discussed this particular application with several colleagues at the Polytechnic from different parts of Africa: Zambia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and all of them agree that it is unusual and that in their own countries the accepted expression is “Master of Ceremonies”.

British and American colleagues also have attested to the employment of “Master of Ceremonies”, abbreviated to “MC” on more than one occasion. Similarly in India, the common nomenclature is “MC”.

I tried to look for the reason which has led to this kind of usage. It is not a translation from Afrikaans or German. Neither is it an adaptation from the major language groups of Namibia: Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Oshikwanyama, Oshindonga, Damara/Nama, Rukwangali, Silozi and others.

The explanation for the use of “Director” came from my good friend, Dr Tara Elyssa, who attributed it to the apartheid legacy of Namibia where “Master” would not simply denote its literal meaning, but would be connotative of a “master” and “slave” relationship which in the Southern African context would reverberate with an emotional intensity unfound in other parts of Africa.

Perhaps, even the use of the word “slave” in this passage is wrong, because it is connotative of the American context. In Southern Africa, “master” would mean owner, lord, overseer, manager, governor, commander, captain, chief, headman, principal, owner, top dog, chief, etc.

It should be realised that another meaning of the word master derives from “mastery” which is knowledge, skill and competence. Other synonyms for the word master used as an adjective are deft, dexterous, skilled, skilful, proficient, expert and adept. For instance:

1. He has mastery in carpentry;

2. I have a Master of Arts in English (MA), (which means that I have mastery over English);

3. Dr Ajibola has done MSc in Mathematics (means that he has a mastery in the Science of Mathematics).

Ergo, a Master of Ceremonies would therefore mean mastery over the ceremonies, in other words, in control or have authority over the ceremonies that are going to take place.

Director, on the other hand, has a different connotative meaning. In the Namibian context a director is a person of importance, almost equal, in some cases, to a professor. The post of a director at the Polytechnic is equivalent to a professor. And I am told that in the Ministries, a Director’s position, is of significance and carries considerable clout. Calling an MC, a director of ceremonies, gives the position undue and unwarranted importance. In fact, it is the job of the MC only to ensure that events take place as planned in the programme, that is all.

This discussion brings me to the notion of understanding and using English correctly. Part of the problem which people have is in using words with a denotative meaning, in complete ignorance of the connotative. It is the connotative use of the word that gives it a certain nuance, a subtle distinction that makes its usage unique yet perfect in a given context.

Great writers are famous not just for the profound thoughts that they present to humanity but also because these thoughts are expressed in words that are apt. It is not necessary to use polysyllabic words to create the right impression. But it is most certainly essential for people to understand the connotative meaning of a word before they use it. Words in and of themselves carry meanings that are beyond the literal. Some connotations are positive whereas some are negative. For instance, I would rather be called a lady than a woman. Even though the two words mean the same, lady carries a connotative meaning which is positive. At the other end of the spectrum is shrew, which is completely negative.

I would like to end by quoting a beautiful line of Keats who states eloquently in “Ode to a Nightingale”

“Now more than ever it seems rich to die To cease upon the midnight with no pain”

Where rich throbs with life, the pulse of blood signifying the profundity of being alive. It is only when one is in the throes of death, that being alive becomes meaningful. Rich in this context, echoes with multiple meanings and does not simply mean a few dollars in the bank.

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