In Search of the Mufugbens

The three mufugbens are, mufugbena, mufugbeneity and mufugbenous. They are words; easy to understand, difficult to define. Tough challenges need genius to define them, yet others stretch beyond intellect’s reach. Mufugben’s origin, I sought to discover, almost compelled me to wish I was a genius. I rejected the wish. It could kill me with ease, faster than sound’s speed. I have for decades heeded the advice, “Avoid taking on loads that can make me pass wind.” Well, pushing out gentle breezes I don’t mind but storms, hurricanes, and tornadoes I loathe. He or she without sin cast the first stone. I am waiting.

Mufugben’s etymology is obscure to the academy, making its standard definition problematic. Words sprung from the depths of West African culture have a hard time. Researchers study them for preservation, before their expected extinction. The mufugbens’ origin is ‘broken’; Afro-European. By linguistic classification, I am Edoid. I have interviewed competent and advanced speakers of Edoid languages. The Edoid origins of mufugbens remained elusive to me for many years. I shed plenty tears after my long search for the mufugbens ended without success. Friends and lovers have dumped me a few times, the mufugbens did it worse. They broke my heart then courage.

Good fortune dried my tears on a plane not long after when I met an Esan linguist, Joe, based in the United Kingdom. Joe is fluent in Esan, Urhobo, Edo, Itsekiri and competent in Kwale and Ika; languages of Midwestern Nigeria. Joe explained mufugbens were original words in Pidgin’s small vocabulary. Joe assured me speakers who used the word as currency are dead. The linguist’s centenarian great-grandmother, a former colonial teacher, taught him the words and their usage. He would have to find the notebooks he wrote them in.

European languages communicate precise concrete definitions, causing an ever-expanding dictionary of words. Synonyms can run into hundreds. Words without synonyms are new. Edoid languages carry their meaning through context and delivery. Words imply their meanings by their use and utterance rather than concrete definitions. I never overlooked the delivery of irony in the English language. My father spoke the Urhobo language like one endless idiom with repeated words taking on new distinct meanings. Dad used a small vocabulary to express what I cannot do in English. I mean, equipped with learning, dictionaries, thesauruses, and word processing software. I remember Dad’s ten-minute narration in which fuẹnhwẹn [death] had six meanings. Yes, broken equipment, marital separation, discontinuity, a beating, and death. My father’s stories were monochromes of countless shades; I miss them.

The unique obscurity of West African languages (studied before their expected extinction) became first proper lesson I got on the mufugbens. I remained far from receiving its concrete meaning, though. The search had to continue but no longer in the dark. I was wondering if O.J. Simpson could “retrieve” the notebooks for me.

Grimot Nane

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