No more zebras, please \\V//

At the risk of burying the lede amidst some shameless school spirit: the Portuguese word for upset, when it comes to sports, is zebra. Like, as in the animal.

Zebras are topical because it is March and I’ve been watching a lot of college basketball. Elaine has been surprisingly supportive of this endeavor, going so far as to upgrade her cable package so we could could watch the games together on ESPN. As a result, I’ve been talking her ear off about March Madness and brackets and Villanova, and she has been listening patiently and teaching me words like zebra.

So of course I had to ask Elaine why they were called zebras, and Elaine said she didn’t know. (Elaine has also said I asked questions like a five-year-old.) But she looked up the etymology for me, and it actually turned out to be pretty interesting.


Basically, there’s an illegal gambling game here called Jogo do Bicho, or the Animal Game. It got its start when a zookeeper in Rio de Jainero wanted to increase his profits. This zookeeper hid an animal behind a curtain and offered visitors the chance to guess what it was. At the end of the day, the animal’s identity would be posted on a pole, and the people who guessed it correctly would be paid off.

Since then, the game’s evolved into a lottery that runs adjacent to the state’s official one.  Apparently the most common way to play is to be one real (currently about US$0.30) on an animal. If the last two digits of the state’s lottery match one of your animal’s number, you win 15 reais. You can apparently make longer bets on more of the digits as well.

Anyway, in the 1960s, a football manager was once asked if he could beat a much better team. The manager said that beating this better team would be like drawing a zebra in the Animal Game: impossible. His team won, however, and zebra stuck.


Zebra turned out to be an important vocabulary word for this tournament

The English Wikipedia page for the Animal Game had another interesting tidbit: apparently in Brazil, gay men are called deer, so 24—the number of the deer—has also come to be associated (pejoratively) with homosexuality. When I asked my students about this, they told me it was like an immature joke that kids say. But my host mom confirmed that even adult male athletes don’t want to wear #24 on their jerseys, and then joked that it’s unfortunate I’ll be turning 24 in a couple weeks. I’m thinking it might also be an empowerment thing, though—pro-LGBT politicians apparently use it in their registration numbers, and my mentor reports that his roommate (who is gay) didn’t know about the Animal Game, but did call 24 “the year of the gay.”

All of this to say: we’ve had enough zebras in this tournament so far. All I want is a repeat of the last time Villanova played Kansas during March Madness or the 44-point smackdown that was Villanova’s last Final Four game, and then a recreation of the 4.7 seconds that were a top highlight of my Villanova career—and yes, I’ve already made my host mom watch that video with me.


If I were playing the Animal Game, I’d be betting on 14. Go ‘Cats.

3 thoughts on “No more zebras, please \\V//

  1. Pingback: A birthday like politics: ending in pizza | In the city of gaúchos

  2. Pingback: The weird and wonderful idioms of Brazilian Portuguese | In the city of gaúchos

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