A lot of semantic changes in the English language have now stayed long enough for the original meanings of the words to slowly fade.
Semantic changes or shifts—the evolution of the usage of words—are in a way necessary for the evolution of a language to adapt to the linguistic necessities of simultaneously evolving cultures.
I beamed when I observed, while sitting on top of a motorbike in Ibadan, a semantic shift in full bloom in the Yoruba language. The word gbéra translates directly to “lift body.” The word’s original use is in situations such as leaving to go somewhere else or traveling. The old usage does not have the sense of urgency that new usage(s) of the word has.
Atop that motorbike, on the road linking Bódijà and Secretariat, I was running late for an appointment and, in a move that was almost immediately regrettable, I told the bike-man, “Gbéra.”
The word sent adrenaline coursing down the rider’s vein. He stepped on the pedal. To the bike-rider “gbéra” had become a challenge or an accusation that he was being too timid, and so amidst loosely held-up cars and a blinding sun, he became dare-devil, speeding into road bumps and potholes while swerving dangerously.
I promised myself never to tell a bike-man gbéra again.
Two years later, two weeks ago, I was running late again, and I spat out the magic word. This bike-man reacted to it on a deeper level and sped in the opposite direction of traffic on a federal highway. I have since resolved never to use the word in such circumstances again.
Another new use of the word is in gambling circles, especially in the virtual dog racing subset. Gamblers glue their eyes to the screen after selecting their dog(s) and scream, “Gbéra!” at the virtual beings.
A typical example of this scream is “Ajá four, gbéra!” meaning: Dog Number Four, do not only lift your body, lift it more intensely than other dogs. The use here is in a competitive sense, which the original usage lacks. In popular culture, these virtual dogs have become a metaphor for fortunes, and when Small Doctor in his single titled “Gbéra,” featuring Reminisce, proclaims, “Ajá mi ti gbéra,” it is a metaphor for sudden success or a breakout (known in generally as “blowing”).
In the routine business of daily life, the word has come to have meanings ranging from doing things with greater speed and enthusiasm to having surges of confidence. The latter meaning is exemplified in a mob goading their friend to go after a dame or a student motivating a fearful classmate before a crucial examination.
The word has in essence evolved from “to lift one’s body” to “to lift one’s soul or spirit.”
Post image by Melvin “Buddy” Baker via Flickr.
About the Author:
Moyosore Orimoloye is a poet from Akure, Nigeria who has had his work published in The Ilanot Review, The Rising Phoenix Review, The Kalahari Review and The Best New African Poets 2015 anthology. His poem “Love is a plot device and your insecticide is not” co-won the Babishai Niwe Poetry Award in August 2016. He is currently an Intern Pharmacist at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Aro, Abeokuta. He tweets from @MoyoOrims.