I see the Portuguese papers are covering Dom Cummings’s interview with Laura Kuennsberg. Now, I don’t really think Cummings and his ridiculous scheming need any more free publicity so for the purposes of this blog post, I will change his face and name to that of another Dom, namely Dom Casmurro, the protagonist of a classic Brazilian novel of the same name by Machado de Assis*. Why would Dom Casmurro want to bring about Brexit? Something to do with his belief in the power of unfettered free markets, I think. Yes, that’s right… He’s a Capitulist**.
One of the things Dom Casmurro said in his interview was that anyone who was sure about the outcomes of brexit must have “a screw loose”. Except the Portuguese headline doesn’t actually say that, it says one screw short: “Um parafuso a menos”. I wondered if this was just an attempt at a literal translation of an English expression that had gone a bit wrong, but it isn’t. According to priberam, the expression “ter um parafuso a menos” actually exists as an idiomatic expression and it means the same thing as “have a screw loose” means in English.
There are variations. You can hear it as “um parafuso de menos” because a menos and de menos mean the same thing. And here’s where the plot thickens: you can also have “um parafuso a mais” – one screw too many!
I suppose the fact that Portuguese screws can be too many or too few might point to a subtle difference in what Portuguese and English speakers are imagining when they use their version of the expression. It seems as if the Portuguese version relates to something like an IKEA assembly, or some sort of building project where you either run out of screws or have one left over at the end. Something must have gone wrong in the assembly. In English, on the other hand, we’re usually thinking of a machine that is behaving erratically, rattling and producing defective work because it hasn’t had all its fixtures tightened properly.
I like this sort of divergence. There are lots of examples of Portuguese expressions that are identical to English ones and plenty where an expression only exists in one language. But this sort of case is intriguing because they’re similar but with a different slant in Portuguese vs English. How did they end up like this? I refuse to believe that they just emerged independently. That just doesn’t ring true at all.
So… Maybe the expression started out in one language and was transmitted to the other but in the process it got altered slightly? So if it started in English and got adopted in Portuguese, “um parafuso a menos” sounded better than “um parafuso à solta”.
Or vice versa, if it traveled to London from Lisbon, “a screw loose” sounded better than “a screw missing” to anglophone ears so we changed it to suit ourselves.
Alternatively, maybe it was imported into both languages from a third, such as French, say. I had a half-hearted look online for “un vis desserrée” or various ways I could think of saying absent, missing, failed screws with my rusty O-Level French, but couldn’t come up with anything that brought back a high enough number of Google results to convince me I was looking at a common ancestor of my English and Portuguese expressions.
Dictionaries, whether English or Portuguese, limit themselves to etymologies within English and Portuguese and don’t acknowledge earlier instances in other languages, so there’s not much of a clue to be had there. English dictionaries claim origins somewhere around the 18th or 19th centuries but I don’t see any dates in any online Portuguese dictionaries. Maybe it’s time to invest in a chunky breeze-block sized Portuguese dictionary at last.
Anyway, the bottom line is that I don’t know for sure but I am pretty sure that there has been some cross-pollination of languages here, but not a direct, literal translation. If anyone reading this has any more information I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, the expression “um parafuso a menos” seems useful to know and I will definitely try and work it into the conversation next time I meet a young poet on a train who wants me to listen to his poetry when I am feeling sleepy.
*=The Dom in Dom Casmurro isn’t a name though, it’s an honorific like “Sir” or “Lord”. The protagonist, Bento Santiago is given the name Don Casmurro on the very first page of the book by an annoying wannabe poet who he has met on a train journey. Casmurro doesn’t translate well into English but it’s something along the lines of stubborn, monomaniacal, a loner… Pig-headed maybe? “Lord Pig-headed”? I dunno. It’s not a catchy name for a book is it?
**= in the book, Bento falls in love with and marries his neighbour Capitolina, known as Capitu. The novel is really popular but there’s a raging controversy among its admirers which hinges on whether or not Bento is correct in his belief that she has been unfaithful to him. IMHO, no, he’s an idiot, but that’s far from a universally held opinion! Anyway, sorry, that’s a lot of background material to explain a pretty terrible pun, isn’t it?