Igbo Expression of the Week

Taba Nsi
Be Patient
(Lit: Eat Shit)
Igbo rocks. Go forth and speak it.


An Idiom is a phrase or expression producing meaning beyond the sum of words 

An Idiom refers to a grammatical construction unique to a certain people, region, or class that cannot be translated literally into another language (e.g., “To be on thin ice,” “To pull someone’s leg”)

An Idiom  is a common expression that has acquired a meaning that differs from its literal meaning, such as “It’s raining cats and dogs” or “That cost me an arm and a leg.”

The above phrase is an Igbo Idiom.

Many Nigerians in general, and Igbos in particular (myself included) grew up in a world where we had to constantly convert back and forth from [insert language] to English and vice versa. This is not anyone’s fault. I’m just pointing it out.

This tendency to mentally translate other languages piecemeal into English and then glean understanding from the English translation however, is highly problematic. 

Why is this problematic? Because English and Igbo are not parallel languages. The expression “lost in translation” implies that it is impossible to directly convert between two languages and transmit 100% of the meaning. This was the first thing I understood thoroughly that allowed me to learn Spanish, Hausa, and French with relative ease (even though I pretty much discarded all three once my use for them had ended).

The Golden Rule is this: There is NO direct conversion. It might appear that way, but the truth is, the most reliable conversion is EQUIVALENT conversion. In other words, you must resist the compulsion to break Igbo down into bits and pieces that you can translate into English. In fact, resist the compulsion to translate Igbo into English at all. The two languages are completely alien to each other and any attempts at direct conversion leads to missing the true meaning at best and confusion at worst.

Take the above expression for instance. Taba Nsi. The construction is weird and as someone pointed out, it should be “Ta Nsi”. In fact, “Ta Nsi” means “Bite Shit” and “Taba Nsi” means “Begin to bite shit” or “Start biting shit”. Technically it should say ‘ Li(e) Nsi’ which is a command to eat shit. However, no one is remembering that this is an idiomatic expression which means that it doesn’t necessarily have to (and most likely does not) follow the general pattern of regular speech. This also  means that its meaning may have no relationship whatsoever to its literal translation.

As someone else pointed out, it is also possible to say “Nwe Ndidi” which literally means ‘Have Patience’. However, Nwe Ndidi comes from directly translating the English expression “Have patience” whereas the correct Igbo equivalent would be “Di Ndidi” (lit: Be patient). ‘Have patience’ doesn’t exist in Igbo in that form. It’s an English construction not an Igbo one.

Either way, my point is this: Taba Nsi’s construction is the way it is because it is an idiom. Secondly and most importantly, it is not the literal meaning that is important, but the bridge between the literal meaning and the implied meaning that is what matters. In the case of this particular expression, while I have never tried it myself, I imagine that eating shit would indeed require infinite amounts of patience.

So, ask yourself: What is the implication of eating shit?

While many implications can be found, patience is one of them.

And therein, you have your meaning.

Now, taba nsi.

There are 10 comments

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  1. FFF

    Taba Nsi means be patient??????????? Hmmmm. me & you must not be speaking the same igbo o. that happens of course. My husband & i don’t always understand d igbo either of us speaks. We say Taa Nsi, which means chop shit! Be patient is Nwe ndidi.

  2. leggy

    be patient means nwe ndidi not taa nsi.sha sha, me i dont know oh.maybe where you are from thats what you people say.
    cos me i know whenever my mum says lie nsi shes simply insulting us.

  3. NenyeN

    Actually, in a certain area (I believe it is some part of northern Igbo), “taba nsi” is an idiomatic expression for having patience. General Igbo though, would literally say “nwe ndidi”.

    The people posting here ought to know and understand the intense diversity of Igbo. No two regions speak the same way. You cannot tell someone what a phrase or sentence is or is not, because cannot be sure of that person’s tongue (unless you’re familiar with it).

  4. sugabelly

    Yes but this post is talking about IDIOMS.

    I don’t really understand why none of the other commenters didn’t get that whatever an idiom means LITERALLY is irrelevant. The point is, an idiom is not supposed to be taken for its literal meaning but rather its IMPLIED meaning.

    And yes, I CAN tell someone what a phrase is or not because just because they don’t say it that way doesn’t mean that it isn’t so.

    Whether the next five people I meet say taba nsi or not it doesn’t change the validity of taba nsi as an idiom in Igbo does it?

  5. NenyeN

    [[[Whether the next five people I meet say taba nsi or not it doesn’t change the validity of taba nsi as an idiom in Igbo does it?]]]
    — That is exactly my point. Taba Nsi is an idiomatic expression used by certain Igbo people. I was only telling those here who are in disagreement that they cannot seriously argue about the validity and [idiomatic] meaning of “taba nsi”, because it is peculiar to a certain group. That was my other point. When it comes to the Igbo, the more you get to know them, the more you find out that things become more and more peculiar and less and less general. For example, Igbo lects. Igbo lects are amongst the most peculiar Igbo-related things. So I don’t see why people can come here and tell you or anyone else what something is or isn’t, especially considering that you prefer Onicha to general Igbo and you’re much more likely to write in your own peculiar tongue.

    The simple fact is that “taba nsi” means “have patience”.

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