The weird and wonderful idioms of Brazilian Portuguese

Idioms are great. They’re little nuggets of culture and history hidden inside a language, completely nonsensical to outsiders who lack the context of a native speaker. As a Portuguese-learner, I’m tickled whenever I encounter one. So I’ve collected some of them here, to share with you.

(The first four entries were taken from a presentation one of my students gave me—I already included screenshots of my favorite slides here, so I won’t repeat the idioms in this post.)

Fazer uma vaquinha
Literal translation: Make a little cow
Meaning: Fundraise by pooling money
Background: In the 1920s, fans of a soccer club in Rio de Jainero decided to encourage their team to play better by collecting money to give the athletes if they won. A normal victory would net them 10 thousand réis, while the reward for an important victory was 25 thousands réis. In the Jogo do Bicho, the animal for #25 was the cow, giving rise to this phrase.

Pagar o pato
Literal translation: Pay for the duck
Meaning: Take the fall for something
Background: According to an old Italian tale, a married woman once prostituted herself to a vendor in exchange for a duck. Sometime during this exchange, the woman decided she had sufficiently paid for the duck, but the vendor wanted to continue. They got into an argument that lasted until the woman’s husband returned home. The woman told her husband she didn’t have enough money to pay for the duck, so to end the fight, the husband gave the merchant money and “paid for the duck”


Also a handy political statement: “It’s time to pay for the duck” (c/o nvoupagaropato)

Cair a ficha
Literal translation: The token to drop
Meaning: To finally understand something (to “click”)
Background: In pre-1990s Brazil, public phones apparently worked with these coin-like tokens. Once the call was completed, you could hear the token falling to the bottom of the machine—a sign that your message had gone through.

A essa altura do campeonato
Literal translation: At this point in the championship
Meaning: At this stage of the game
Background: …Brazil really likes soccer. Also, with five World Cup victories, I guess they’re also used to being in a championship.

Só para inglês ver
Literal translation: Just for the English to see
MeaningOnly for appearances
Background: When Great Britain recognized the newly-formed Brazil in 1822, it demanded that Brazil cease importing slaves. In 1831, Brazil eventually passed Feijó’s Law, which stated that all slaves who entered after that date would be free—and owners would be tried in court as kidnappers. However, slave owners were some of the richest (and hence most powerful) people in Brazil, and their influence extended to the courts. Feijó’s Law was never really enforced, and the arrivals of imported slaves quickly rebounded to pre-treaty heights. Thus it was said that the treaty was signed “just for the English to see,” without any intention of actually enforcing it.

O peixe morre pela boca
Literal translationFish die through the mouth
Meaningloose lips sink ships, basically
Background: Fish who don’t open their mouths don’t get caught on hooks. I learned this phrase through The Mystery of the Chupacabra, a Portuguese chapter book I picked up at a used-book fair back in March. It was the first book I read in Portuguese, and I’m inordinately proud of the words/phrases I figured out as a result.


Manter uma boca de siri
Literal translation: Keep a crab’s mouth
MeaningTo keep a secret

Descascar o abacaxi
Literal translationPeel the pineapple
Meaning: To solve a problem

Segurar vela
Literal translationHold the candlestick
MeaningBe a third wheel
(Like, the couple’s there having a romantic date and you’re just there holding a candle for them)

Cara de pau
Literal translationWooden face
MeaningSomeone acting shamelessly


In our house, most often applied to Yves

Enfiar o pé na jaca
Literal translation: Stick your foot in the jackfruit
MeaningTo do something to excess
(This has become one of my favorite expressions to use, what with all the all-you-can-eat buffets around here.)

Manteiga derretida
Literal translationMelted butter
Meaning: Crybaby

Saia justa
Literal translationTight skirt
MeaningTight spot

Quem não arrisca não petisca
Literal translationWho doesn’t risk doesn’t snack
MeaningNothing ventured, nothing gained
(I learned this when Elaine’s sister’s family was visiting and we were running to the grocery store to pick up some finger food (petiscas) to serve for a light dinner. She had a certain brand of frozen food in mind, but she couldn’t find it in the freezers, so she decided to ask an employee if they had any in the back. “Quem não arrisca não petisca,” she told me, completely unaware of its literal truth.)


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