Linguistic Peregrinations of a Native Son
By Gilbert Nii-Okai Addy
The dictionary definition of the word “gargantuan” that has recently become enormously popular in Ghana and in “Ghenglish” ( Ghanaian English ) is “ extremely large or massive”. Related words or synonyms could be any among the following : giant, gigantic, jumbo, elephantine, colossal and perhaps even gargantuan itself !!!
Some lexicographers and linguists think that the word “gargantuan” should only be used to describe things connected with food in such ways as “ a gargantuan meal”, “a gargantuan appetite “ and perhaps even “ a gargantuan potbelly” , unfortunately and impolitely for some people !
The origins of the word is acknowledged to be from “Gargantua” , the large-mouthed giant in the collection of five novels by the French Renaissance author François Rabelais ( 1494-1553). It is supposedly derived from the Latin “garganta” which means “gullet “ or “throat “. Thanks to my being among the very last generation of Ghanaians to have studied Latin at Adisadel, I can confidently though modestly claim to know that this is the same Latin root as in the word “gargle” in the English language which many would be familiar with. After all who has not ever had to “gargle” ?
François Rabelais ( 1494-1553) was a leading French Renaissance writer. He was also a doctor, monk, and scholar of classical Greek. His best known work is Gargantua and Pantagruel. The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel (in French, La vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel ) is a connected series of five novels written in the 16th century by the French author Francois Rabelais The story is essentially about two giants , a father Gargantua and his son Pantagruel and their adventures . The style of writing is floridly satirical and amusing.
Rabelais had been a student of classical Greek and used this knowledge in the invention of many new words which became part of the French language, rather like William Shakespeare’s invention of many words and phrases which have become part of the English language The novels, available in English, are worth reading , by those interested in language and literature.
I am not entirely sure how the word “gargantuan” managed to creep into the ever-evolving “Ghenglish” or Ghanaian English . It probably was first used by some public figure such as a politician. A friend tells me that the trajectory of word’s entry into Ghenglish is probably rather like that of the word “nefarious” which he recalls was first used publicly by former President Jerry Rawlings at his trial in 1979 when he referred to the “ nefarious activities” of “kalabule” traders and business people who he believed had brought about the dire economic problems of
the time and the phenomenon of “essential commodities” which were always in demand but never in supply.
This was a classic case of what theoretical economists call “ market disequilibrium” – an imbalance between the market demand and market supply of a commodity. “Disequilibrium” itself is something of a gargantuan word – a mouthful which I promise not to use here again ! “Essential commodities” in the bad old days in Ghana during the 1970s and 1980s seemed to be the quintessentially Ghenglish term. I remember, at the time of the that politically turbulent year of 1979 ,trying to explain to some perplexed English friends at university in England why
the political troubles in my home country of Ghana were then being driven by shortages of “essential commodities”. None of them could quite get it !
They did not quite understand what one meant by “essential commodities”. It seemed like a term from another planet , or from hell which was what the economy was like in those bad old days anyway. After some generous and painstaking explanation from my good self some of them were able to understand; but only up to a point .
Toilet paper , maybe and indeed just maybe, could be generally described as an “essential commodity”. One of my friends in fact cheekily engaged me in a debate as to why modern manufactured toilet paper should be considered an “essential commodity “ at all. His argument was that mankind had existed for millennia without manufactured toilet paper, many people round the world did not use it , and nearly everybody could live pretty well with out it if they put their minds to it ! A supremely debatable issue, yes, but I think most people today would regard toilet paper as decidedly “essential” to modern life , just as they would pleasurable frivolities like chocolate, ice-cream, beer , lipstick , deodorants and perfumes !!
But what of things like “tinapa” or tinned mackerel, corned beef , tinned sardines, drinking chocolate with brand names like “milo” , “ovaltine” , tinned milk, condensed milk , Kraft processed cheese and other most basic and not particularly wholesome or even healthy processed food items ? Ghanaians had learned to consume such products via the colonial experience and they seemed to have elevated them to the status of “essential commodities” which were a mater of life or death !
I can remember my schooldays at Adisadel when there would often be situations when and where some boys would be left wallowing in abject misery – and psychological poverty – because their chop boxes had been mercilessly and mysteriously emptied of these items – without their prior permission of course !
Taking something that does not belong to you is of course plain and simple theft to most people. In the Caribbean Islands where I lived and worked for some years, they have an oddly “ garguantuan” term for theft known as “ praedial larceny”; a term which does not appear to be used anywhere else in this world. One often reads in the local newspapers about common , but gallantly intrepid, thieves being sentenced to jail for the “praedial larceny” of bananas or mangoes from a some legally and emotionally aggrieved farmer’s field !
For some years, as I myself can remember and attest, the word “ nefarious”, reigned supreme in Ghana’s language and literature . It seemed to creep up nearly everywhere in newspaper articles and in everyday speech. Its use however seems to have run its course these days and it is quite some time now since I last read about any “nefarious activities “ by any person or group of persons in Ghana. Perhaps that in itself is a sign of progress – economic, linguistic and literary progress.
The same fate may possibly await the current use of the word “gargantuan” , with seemingly reckless abandon, in Ghana. Any new word starts off as some sort of fashionable novelty. It then becomes quite ordinary and pedestrian and , finally , its use eventually becomes boring if not positively irritating !
As such, rather like “ essential commodities” and “nefarious” one can expect , over time , something like a gradual and progressive descent of the word “gargantuan” into some kind of gargantuan obsolescence in Ghenglish and in Ghana.
That again may be a sign of welcome progress. Indeed progress of the gargantuan kind !!
©Gilbert Nii-Okai Addy
Gilbert Nii-Okai Addy manages a globetrotting work and lifestyle portfolio as (1) an International
Economist and Management Consultant ; (2) a Critic , Writer and Historian of the Arts, Culture
and Creative Industries and (3) a Classical Guitarist
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