Posted in English

Loose Screws and Brexit Blues

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?

Posted in English

No Such Thing As Society

I came across this paragraph in a book I read recently. It hit me because it’s a familiar quote but I also realised i didn’t know how to say “there’s no such thing as…”

“For the right-wing libertarian “there’s no such thing as society” (Margaret Thatcher) and liberty is individual or not at all”. And “Não existe tal coisa” is the key phrase meaning “there’s no such thing as”

Incidentally, that “direita” is causing me some headaches in the book I’m reading now “A Construção da Democracia em Portugal”. My confusion comes from the fact that one of the socialist leaders is a law professor – “Professor de Direito” – because “direito” means right as in right hand but also means right as in “human rights” and by extension, law. But I keep thinking he’s a Professor de Direita – ie, a right-wing professor, which is a bit weird if he’s helping lead a socialist movement. Direita isn’t a different word from direito, it’s just shorthand for right-wing, and wing is “ala”, which is feminine so the ending has changed.

There you go: quite a lot to unpack there! I have quite a few of these little nuggets saved up from the last few weeks of reading so I might do a few more of these posts. They help me to remember them and maybe they’re useful to other people too.

Posted in English

An Apple A Day

The portuguese equivalent of “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is pleasing because it rhymes just like the english version

Uma maçã por dia, não sabe o bem que lhe fazia

It isn’t usually used in that form though. If you look for the second part online it’s more often used with “um livro por dia”, “uma música por dia” “uma panda por dia” or any other noun you care to name

Posted in English

Friends With Bem Feitas

I watched a YouTube video yesterday about the French language, which turns out to vê useful for Portuguese too. She was taking about the use of the phrase bien fait. It literally means “well done” but although it is sometimes used to mean that as part of a larger sentence, when it’s used in its own, it doesn’t carry the same significance as it would of an English person said “Well done”. In other words, if you see a French person makes a heroic effort, saves a kitten from drowning, say, getting soaked in the process, bien fait is not the phrase you need.

The reason is that they use it to mean “serves you right” or “you got what you deserved”, so our heroic kitten-rescuer in the previous paragraph would think you were mocking her or saying she deserved to suffer through dampness because of being so reckless as to try and save a kitten.

So this morning I was reading Winepunk (a sci-fi short story compilation based on an alternative history of the Monarquia do Norte in the early twentieth century) and I came across this passage

“Among them, the engineer sees scores of war-wounded, still in uniform. [Bem Feita] for signing up in the hope of an ephemeral moment of glory”

It’s pretty obvious from. The context that “bem feita” here means the same thing as bien fait: “It serves them right”. He thinks the war wounded deserved to be injured for signing up to the army in pursuit of glory.

Posted in English

You Say Patati, I Say Patatá, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off

One of my favourite booktubers recently started a new channel in Portuguese, after switching to English on her main channel. It’s called “As Revoltas da Manganet” if you’re interested. In the middle of the debut video she makes a noise that jumped out at me like “e pa ta ti pa ta ta”. It didn’t sound like anything that made sense but on the other hand, it sounded a bit too deliberate to be a random noise, so I hunted around and it turns out that the expression is “patati patatá”. It is roughly equivalent to “yada yada” or “blah blah blah” or just “and so on and so forth”.

The reason it took a little bit of digging was partly because it seems to be used in French and Spanish too, and partly because there’s also a Brazilian TV show called Patati Patatá, so on some sites it seems like they’ve translated it using the names of better-known (to English audiences) double-acts like “Frick and Frack”. But I think “yada yada” fits best in the context of the video, so I’m mentally shelving it as a useful little phrase to have up my sleeve for later…

Posted in English

Close Encontros

Another nugget from the book I’m reading: this time, it’s two phrases that are similar and can be easily confused

Ir ao encontro de = to agree with – “A minha opinião vai ao encontro da tua” (my opinions agree with yours)

Ir de encontro a = crash into – “O ciclista foi de encontro ao muro” (The cyclist went into the wall)

So in the mistake: “Concordo com o narrador e a minha opinião vai de encontro ao que ele afirmou” the student is saying they agree with the author and their opinions collide with his

Posted in English

Lizard, Lizard, Lizard

youre-a-lizard-harry-36247804One of the exercises in “A Actualidade em Português” is about superstitions and there are five that are similar to “knock on wood” or similar – phrases for warding off the effects of bad luck. By far the coolest is “Lagarto, Lagarto, Lagarto” (Lizard, Lizard, Lizard). I have no idea why that means what it means. Ciberdúvidas isn’t much help and neither is Andreia Vale’s “Puxar a Brasa à Nossa Sardinha”. Even m’wife didn’t know, only guessed that maybe it was because witches use lizards in their spells.

Anyway, while I was researching it, I came across this freaky advert for an art show which uses an old song from the 70s by Banda do Casaco called “A Ladainhas Das Comadres” which includes the phrase. Confusingly the first line is in latin (the portuguese equivalent would be “Afasta-te, Satanás” or “Vai para trás, Satanás”)

Vade retro Satanás [get thee behind me Satan – Latin]

T’arrenego Belzebu [I abjure you, Beelzebub]

A Jesus Cruzes Canhoto [To Jesus, crosses left-handed]

Lagarto, Lagarto, Lagarto! [Lizard, Lizard, Lizard!]

That “Crosses left-handed” is a similar phrase used to ward off evil, sometimes extended to “Cruzes, canhoto! Longe vá o agouro!”

Similar phrases include

  • Isola
  • Diabo seja cego, surdo e mudo
  • Vira para lá essa boca
  • Salvo seja


Posted in Portuguese

Return of the Mackerel

A Portuguese friend left a comment on one of my Instagram posts today where I was bragging about my skills in (a) pumpkin husbandry and (b) soup wrangling.

“Armado em carapau de corrida!”

Which is like um… Armoured in racing mackerel. Or something.

This took a bit of deciphering but basically I think she thought I was showing off and pretending to be an expert. Fair enough. It seems to be a common expression but I’d never heard it before. There’s an explanation here.

Posted in English

It’s Time To Master “Bater”

I keep seeing constructions like “bater mal” and “bater certo”, and couldn’t quite see why “bater” was being used. I asked and (after a brief kerfuffle with some brazilians who tried to tell me that it disn’t exist and made no sense) found out that it is an informal expression. Bater is the verb used for the beating of a heart or the ticking of a clock, and if it starts going wrong that’s bad, so if someone “bate mal” after – say – a blow to the head, he’s not quite himself. You can also “bater bem” (being in good form) and things can “bater certo” (be exact, precise, spot on).

There’s an example of Bater Mal near the beginning of this song by the Greatest Band Ever

Posted in English

Two New Expressões

Agradar a gregos e troianos – “please the greeks and the trojans”. Obviously means find a solution that pleases everyone

A vida é uma corda bamba – “life is a tightrope”. Pretty obvious really.