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Mr. *** was not amused!


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Danilo Nogueira photoKelli Semolini  photoMr. *** (we do not know his name), a member of the Roma people, was not amused. Not amused at all. He opened his copy of Dicionario Houaiss, one of the two most influential dictionaries published in Brazil, and did not like what he saw therein. Specifically, he found item 5 in the “cigano” (that is gypsy) entry absolutely unacceptable, not to say insulting:


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or, in English, approximately,

5 (1899) Usage: Derogatory.

he or that who cheats, knave, swindler

It opens the way to a series of other similar complaints, from other groups, demanding equal treatment.
Mr. *** was outraged for two reasons. First, he did not like to see his people associated with negative concepts such as cheating, knavery and swindling. Second, he was not knowledgeable about lexicography. If he were, he would not have done what he did.

Mr. *** wrote a complaint to the Ministério Público, or “MP” for short, reporting what he saw as a crime. His compliant was allocated to Mr. Cléber Eustáquio, Neves, Esq., a federal attorney in the MP regional office in the city of Uberlândia, who decided the matter was sufficiently serious to warrant his attention.

MP attorneys have very wide powers, including the authority to file suits on behalf of the general public, whenever they think fit. Being a cautions man, however, before bringing the publishers to the tribunals, he wrote a few letters using his official letterhead, wherein he encouraged them to purge their dictionaries of offenses against the Roma people—or else.

It seems that Globo and Melhoramentos, two dictionary publishers, heeded the warning. Objetiva, the publisher of Houaiss, however, refused to make the changes  on the grounds that the dictionary belonged to Instituto Houaiss and that they had no right to amend it.


Breaking News

The news broke on February 27, 2012: Mr. Neves, Esq., decided to go to court against Objetiva. In his complaint, he asked the court to have the dictionary seized and destroyed. Editora Objetiva and Instituto Antônio Houaiss responded with a press release stating that the edition at issue has been out of print for some time and that the new edition would give the Roma people a better treatment and the same went for the abridged editions, a lot more popular than the “big” one.

That notwithstanding, they said a dictionary simply registers language as it is and only reflects usage, a statement wherewith we heartily agree. Dictionaries are documents, snapshots of a language, and the more faithful to reality, the better.

Brazilian Portuguese and, we believe, every language of the world, is full of racist terms. The most famous of them may be “judiar” (to “act like a Jew”) which means “to hurt, mistreat, mock” and merits an unlabeled entry in Houaiss. The lack of a label is inexcusable. Readers should be informed that this word will be considered offensive by Jewish people. But the entry is otherwise correct: Verb “judiar” exists  and the dictionary should record it, although  many people refuse to use it nowadays.

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The plot thickens

The question is, however, not the suit itself, but the way Objetiva and Instituto Antônio Houaiss reacted. Because despite their press releases defending their position on February 29, the entry for cigano was purged from Houaiss online. In its place, the standard “The word ____ was not found”.

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The same happened to the entry for negro, which, in Portuguese, is a not necessarily offensive term for a person of African descent, but also means “black” (that old song “Dark Eyes” is known as “Olhos Negros”), and has a host of other negative meanings (“futuro negro” is a “bleak future”)  and several “sensitive” others.

In other words, although they said the prosecutor was wrong and that a dictionary should be a true portrait of the language, warts and all, they decided to comply with the request once the suit was filed—but before the first hearing was scheduled! They retreated before filing their answer to the complaint!

If they think they are right, they should see the lawsuit as a golden opportunity to defend their position. Why didn’t they?

Oh, well, who knows, isn’t it? But people do talk, you know. Perhaps they did not want to pick a fight with the Federal Government, which is the greatest buyer of books in Brazil. So they decide to retreat even before the battle began.


The worst lies ahead

Little by little, new versions of the expurgated entries were posted to the online edition. Cigano was restored with an appendix on usage, as if the “derogatory” label was not enough.

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The usage note says “meanings 5 and 6 are a result of the old European tradition, derogatory and xenophobic because it is based on erroneous ideas and prejudice concerning the characteristics of this people which, in the past, led a nomadic life.” We can assure you that the Portuguese text is as awkward as our English translation.

What is wrong with the usage note? Lots of things. First, it is plainly wrong, because many “gypsies” still lead a nomadic life. Second, this is the sort of information that would fit in an encyclopedia or in an encyclopedic dictionary, not in a general dictionary, such as Houaiss. Third, it opens the way to a series of other similar complaints, from other groups, demanding equal treatment. For instance the entry for “paulista”  (someone born in the State of São Paulo, like the authors of this article) says, under meaning #2 “obstinate, stubborn”. Should we demand equal treatment in the form of an explanation of the root for this unfair and unbearable insult against paulistas, known to be the sweetest of people?

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We, Paulistas are not amused!

This article would have been impossible without the cooperation of our friend Roseli Dornelles dos Santos, who has recently earned her M.A. with a dissertation on Italian-Portuguese lexicography named “ E chi se ne frega?” However, any and all errors found here are our own responsibility.





Published - June 2012












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