What’s behind what we say...
Versão em português
We spend our whole life repeating things we've heard since childhood, yet we seldom pause to mull over what we're actually saying. This is very often the case with popular sayings. I grew up with a grandmother who sprinkled her chatter with colorful popular expressions and wise proverbs. Her speech became part of my own personal discourse and I later passed on this vibrant language to my children. But... what's really lurking behind what we say?
I've picked out some frequently heard popular sayings and, with the help of the venerable Câmara Cascudo, I've delved into their early origins. Some of these sayings have various versions: here I have opted for those with a more historical grounding.
“Você vai se casar com um fulano sem eira nem beira!” ("You´ll end up marrying someone without house or home!")
The houses during Brazil's colonial period were fitted with roofs formed by three lines of overlapping tiles. When it rained, the sloping roofs hurled the water into the street and the backyard of the house. The area under the roof was decorated with features called the eira, beira and entrebeira, which as well as acting as decor, served to distinguish the different social classes of the house proprietors. The more elaborate the features, the richer the owner. Thus a house which had neither eira nor beira revealed the humble condition of its owner.
“Êta trabalhinho feito em cima das coxas!” ("This work has just been thrown together!")
House tiles in colonial Brazil were manufactured by slaves. Since they modeled the clay on their thighs to obtain the channel-shaped pieces, the result tended to be uneven and the final roof invariably lopsided with an amateurish look. Hence the expression - which literally means "on the thighs" - came to mean imperfect or shoddy work.
“Este é o tipo de promessa só para inglês ver!” ("This kind of promise is for appearance’s sake only!")
In 1824, during the period when our independence was finally being recognized, the English gave Brazil a deadline of seven years to abolish the slave trafficking. In 1831, when the deadline set by the English was due to expire, Father Feijó, the then Minister of Justice, drafted a law on the judgment and penalties to be imposed on slave traffickers. It was so confusing that applying it proved utterly impossible. This gave rise to the expression "for the English to see," meaning something invented soley for appearances.
“Vai tomar banho!” ("Go take a walk!")
In Casa Grande & Senzala, Gilberto Freyre analyzes the hygiene habits of Indians compared to the Portuguese colonizers. After the Crusades, as a corollary of the new trade contacts, Europeans became infected with syphilis and other transmissible diseases and developed a fear of baths and a horror of nudity - much to the delight of the Church. The Indians, who had never suffered from syphilis, washed themselves from head to toe by bathing in the rivers. They also used plant leaves to clean their babies and washed their sleeping hammocks in the river water. By contrast, the smell emitted by the bodies of the Portuguese - stifled in clothes that were seldom changed and rarely washed, coupled with their phobia of bathing - provoked much disgust among the Indians. Hence the Indians, when they were fed up from receiving orders from the Portuguese, told them to "go take a bath." When someone tries our patience, we repeat the same phrase!
“Eles que são brancos, que se entendam!” ("Leave it up to them to sort it out!")
This saying arose from the first punishments imposed on racists back in the 18th century. A mulato [man of color] captain of a regiment once had a heated discussion with one of his subordinates and complained to his superior, a Portuguese officer. When the captain asked for the soldier who had disrespected him to be punished, the Portuguese officer simply replied with the following phrase: "You're colored, sort it out among yourselves." The captain was indignant and sought out a higher authority in the shape of Dom Luís de Vasconcelos (1742-1807), the 12th viceroy of Brazil. Upon learning the facts of the case, Dom Luís ordered the arrest of the Portuguese officer, who was fairly astonished by the viceroy's attitude. But Dom Luís explained his reasoning: "We're whites, here we understand each other." With this, the expression was coined and repeated by people whenever anyone wishes to avoid taking sides over a particular issue.
“A dar com o pau” ("A whole heck of a lot")
The substantive "pau" (stick) figures in a variety of Brazilian expressions. This saying originated on the slave ships. The captured Africans preferred to die during the crossing and so they refused to eat. In response, their captors created the 'eating stick,' which was stuck down the throat of the slaves while the sailors tipped sap and porridge into their stomachs: hence, given by the stick. People incorporated the expression to mean in abundance or in large quantities.
Ana Singule is a native of Rio de Janeiro. Although she has lived in the city of São Paulo for the past 20 years, she has never shaken her "Carioca" ways. Singule has a degree in Ibero-American Literature from the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a doctorate in Social Anthropology from the University of São Paulo. (USP). Since 1983, she has worked as a sworn translator, specializing in translations to and from Portuguese, Spanish and English. Singule also participated in the collection of stories by the Brazilian writer Luiz Antônio Assis Brasil.
This article was originally published in Сcaps Newsletter (http://www.ccaps.net)