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.)



6 tips for talking with non-native English speakers

Prior to coming to Brazil, I liked to think of myself as someone who communicated effectively with non-native English speakers. I knew enough to speak slowly and clearly, using simple terms and avoiding the unhelpful repeat-what-you-just-said-but-louder technique when faced with people who didn’t understand me. But having spent several months as a non-native Portuguese speaker (in a city where few people speak English), I now have a new appreciation for what works and what doesn’t when you’re trying to engage effectively with a non-native speaker.

In the spirit of intercultural exchange–you know, bringing my experiences back to the States and all—I wanted to share six of the methods I’ve realized here.

(I also want to give a shout-out to my host mom Elaine for embodying so many of these. She’s not only taught me Portuguese; she’s shown me how to better communicate with people across the world. Anyway, onto the tips:)


1. Talk directly to the non-native speaker 

If you’re curious about whether a non-native speaker speaks your language, ask them directly. Often I’ll be introduced to someone as an American, and that person will then turn to my host to ask if I speak Portuguese. Now, I’ve noticed these people don’t speak English, so I’m guessing they might be nervous about communicating with me. But regardless, I still feel a little demeaned because I wasn’t given the opportunity to express myself like an equal participant in the conversation.

Ultimately, it’s not a huge deal. But I do think talking directly to a non-native speaker (even if you don’t speak their language) is an easy way to help them feel welcome in a conversation. (As a side note, I can tell you this is standard training for working with interpreters as well: talk to the person, not the interpreter.) (And as another side note: a lot of people with disabilities report feeling similarly demeaned when people talk to their caretakers instead of them; I know that’s something I’ve needed to remind myself not to do.)


2. Specify when you’re using names

If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation in a foreign language, you’ll know how strenuous it is to constantly figure out the meanings of unknown words. In my experience, those conversations become a lot easier when your foreign-language conversation partner explicitly tells you when one of those unknown words is a name. Specifying if you’re talking about a person or a place or something frees up all sorts of mental bandwidth that your non-native speaking partner can then apply to following the rest of the conversation.


3. Be expressive with your body language

On a related note: I’ve noticed that my competence in a conversation is directly proportional to how much context I have about its topic. If some says something random to me in Portuguese, even if I “know” all the words, I invariably have to ask them to repeat it. The sounds just don’t make as much sense in my brain if I don’t have a context I can slot them into.

As a result, I’ve come to realize that hand gestures and facial expressions and other sorts of body language are vital to improving my listening comprehension. These don’t have to be elaborate mimes; even simple gestures go a long way. For example, when Elaine moves her hands apart from each other, I have a clue that she’s talking about something growing or increasing–which means I can get the gist of the sentence even if I don’t know the verb she’s using. Or like, if she casts her eyes towards the kitchen when she’s making a request, it helps me realize that I should be listening for kitchen-related vocabulary.

I can’t stress this enough: nonverbal cues have often been the single factor that makes me understand something in Portuguese. Being expressive makes communicating with a non-native speaker so much easier.


4. Provide examples as you speak

In line with the last two tips, I’ve also found it super helpful when people provide examples of what they’re talking about. For example, if someone asks me what my favorite season is, they could follow that up with “spring, summer, fall, winter?” Offering me more information increases the chance I’ll understand what my conversation partner is talking about, gives me time to process their question, and helps provide me with the information I need in order to respond. (I may not know the word for “season” and forget the word for “fall” [my favorite season], but I can deduce the question by knowing “spring,” and “summer” and answer it by identifying the word that most sounds like “autumn” (otono).


5. Repeat yourself using different (easier) words

When Elaine says a word she doesn’t think I’ll understand, she’ll usually follow it up with several simpler synonyms. This is great—I get a quick Portuguese lesson, and the conversation flows on uninterrupted. Plus, I feel super lucky to have this opportunity because it’s basically the same process that kids go through as they’re learning their native language.


6. Avoid phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are these verb+preposition combinations that change the verb’s meaning. I never really thought about them before, but they’re a nightmare for English-learners because they’re both numerous and fairly arbitrary. Like, think about how the meanings of “let,” “set,” or “knock” can be modified by combining them with “up” or “down” or “off.” There are tens of hundreds of these combinations, and although there are some general patterns that can learners intuit their meanings, they really just have to be memorized.

Anyway, you can make it easier on non-native speakers by doing your best to avoid phrasal verbs altogether.  You can say “prepare” instead of “set up,” for example. Doing so also has the added benefit of increasing the chance that a non-native speaker might recognize a cognate (a word with the same meaning and similar sound in a different language).


Of course, your mileage may vary with these tips—they’re borne of my experiences as an English speaker (with a background in a couple romance languages) interacting with people whose first language is Portuguese. But at the very least, I think they’re a good place to start.

kkk and other unfortunate Brazilian abbreviations

1507734524_893537_1507878071_noticia_normalAs in many other countries around the world, Whatsapp is hugely popular in Brazil. It’s my primary mode of communication here, and I don’t think I’m alone—phone companies advertise plans with free unlimited Whatsapp use, and I’ve never had anyone call or text me outside the app.

As a result, I’ve seen how a lot of people use a lot of different words, abbreviations, and slang over text. And, well, some of these abbreviations have vastly different meanings in the US, which leads to some pretty amusing texts. Here are three of the most common offenses:

stds = students

This is one I get when some of my students/professors try to write in English. I’ve seen lessons about internet slang in textbooks here, but I have no clue where this particular abbreviation came from. That being said, it does create some easy opportunities to joke about students being a pain in the rear.

bjs = beijos (kisses)

This is just one you learn by context clues when your host mom sends it to you… and your program coordinator… and your professors… and your students…

kkk = lol

Despite the fact the KKK refers to a white-supremacist terrorist group in the US, I actually find this abbreviation quite charming. It’s supposed to represent the sound of laughter, with a variable number of Ks depending on how long you want to laugh for. I just like it because every time I read it, I imagine the sender is laughing like Ernie from Sesame Street.

Other laugh sounds include rsrsrsrs (which some of my students told me stems from risos, meaning “laughs,” but which I think makes more sense when you consider that Rs are pronounced like Hs here) and shuahsuahsuah, along with a keyboard-mashing asdhfgdkl that I think is supposed to convey that you laughed so hard you had no choice but to smash your head into your keyboard.

Bonus differences that aren’t weird/funny but that I think are cute:
Hum(m) = hm(m)
Ops = oops

All of these abbreviations, however, are far better than the alternative: Whatsapp voice messages. It’s super common to send a brief voice recording in lieu of a text, and it drives me crazy. Brazilian Portuguese speakers: I can only understand you half the time even when we’re speaking face-to-face, and I can’t run your voice recording through Google Translate! English speakers: I don’t want to take time out of my schedule to sit and listen to you “umm” and “uhh” for two minutes, much less find a space to listen to your message so I’m not inconveniencing everyone around me! Just text me like a normal person.

I get that sometimes sending a voice recording is quicker for the sender, and I can see how the feature might be a boon in low-literacy environments. But we’re not in a low-literacy environment, and if I’m going to all the trouble to type something out so you can quickly scan it in any environment, you should do the same for me, darn it.

Go back to stds and kkk and bjs, please.

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.

How Portuguese saves me from daily blasphemy

I’m Catholic, but I haven’t done a good job of going to church here. Much of this can be chalked up to the rather tenuous grasp of my schedule I’ve had to have these past few weeks (“Oh, we’re gonna go shopping now? Okay, let me go put on my shoes”), but to be honest, some of it stems from my own unconscious reluctance to go figure out yet another thing here.

However, thanks to Portuguese, I can say I’ve been avoiding the casual pagan-worship that so characterizes life in much of the rest of the Western world!

Here are they days of the week in Portuguese:

Monday: segunda-feira
Tuesday: terça-feira
Wednesday: quarta-feira
Thursday: quinta-feira
Friday: sexta-feira
Saturday: sábado
Sunday: domingo

This is awfully unhelpful for a speaker of other Romance languages. I’m used to jueves in Spanish and giovedi in Italian, and I can see the logic behind jeudi in French. But it takes me forever to figure out what quinta-feira means—I know the quint- root means five, but I also expect the -feira numbering not to start with two. And by the time I’ve remembered that segunda-feira is actually Monday (not Tuesday) and I’ve counted down to Thursday, the conversation’s already moved on and I’ve missed at least two sentences.

For this we apparently have to thank Saint Martinho do Dume, a sixth-century archbishop in what would later become Portugal. He didn’t like the idea of Catholics invoking pagan deities during the week (like Jupiter on Thursdays), so he opted to number the days instead.

“…for the infidels have angered God and do not believe wholeheartedly in the faith of Christ, but are such disbelievers that they place the very names of the demons on each day of the week, and speak of the day of Mars and of Mercury and of Jupiter and of Venus and of Saturn, who never created a day, but were evil and wicked men among the race of the Greeks.”
– Saint Martinho do Dume, De correctione rusticorum

As I understand it, this choice has some basis in Latin liturgical tradition. By order of Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 300s, Easter would be celebrated for a full week. Easter Sunday was the first holiday (feria), so that made Monday the second feria, and so on.

(Sidebar: researching this led me down a rabbit hole about the First Council of Nicaea, organized by Constantine to establish some consensus on various controversies within early Christianity. One of those was the date of Easter, which Constantine appears to have wanted standardized mainly to a) unify the church and b) “separate [Christians] from the detestable company of the Jews.” I wish I were joking.)

History aside, I find that in practice here, the -feira is normally just dropped. I’ll plan to meet a teacher at 3:00 on terça or read on a sign that a weekday business is open de 2ª a 6ª. It’s a bit of an adjustment, but until I get myself to Mass here, I’m going to take advantage of all the holiness I can get.