So yesterday I started talking about a couple of Portuguese phrases, one of which included the word “bicho”. I translated it as “beast” because it’s cognate – in other words, bicho and beast both come from the same Latin root, namely the Latin word “bestius”. It can be used interchangeably with “animal” in some circumstances, but not all. For example, it’s used in the title of a classic book by Miguel Torga, Bichos, and in the Brazilian translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm – A Revolução dos Bichos* But that’s not always true. In some cases, it means something else. And the plot really thickens when we bring in its female equivalent, “bicha”. Common sense dictates that this would just mean the same thing but for female animals, and sometimes that would be right but usually not.
I thought I’d sit down and list out all the meanings of both words and see how much overlap there is – how often is it true that bicha is the feminine form of bicho vs when does it just behave like a totally different word. I’ll ignore the Brazilian meanings completely.
Bicha and bicho are the male and female versions of only one sense:
- Some kind of animal – in the case of bicho, this is the primary meaning of the word. For bicha, it’s only the fourth meaning and even then it’s “especially a domestic animal”, so even this isn’t a perfect match. Bicho should, really, exclude humans but the Miguel Torga book I mentioned earlier has at least one story that’s about a human woman so… 🤷🏼♀️
These are meanings that only belong to bicho
- A stallion or bull, specifically
- An insignificant creature
- An imaginary creature like an ogre or goblin, used to scare children
- Antisocial person (especially as “bicho-do-mato” (informal)
- The person you’re talking about, if you want to refer to them ironically “silêncio o bicho vem aí” = quiet, the beast approaches!
- A germ or illness – if you search twitter for covid bicho you’ll find lots of people referring to covid as a bicho. In this case, it’s more like “bug” than “beast”
- An obsessive interest or taste for something: just like the example above, this seems to be used in the same way we would use “bug” – the example they give is “cedo, descobri o bicho de representação” could translate as “early on, i caught the acting bug”
- A secondary school student (name given by students at the University of coimbra) – and again, you’ll sometimes find senior boys in boarding school novels referring to new boys as “new bugs” so the bicho/bug equivalence is confirmed!
And these words are specific to the feminine word bicha
EDIT – since writing this, I’ve had some more feedback about day-to-day use of “bicha” that is definitely worth bearing in mind. It’s contained in the first footnote to this post about finding worms in blackberries.
- Any animal with a long body and no legs such as a snake, worm or leach
- Generally, any long, thin thing.
- A slang word for a gay man (see this post a few years ago about fado bicha for example).
- Some kind of firework – I’m not actually sure what to imagine here. Judging by what I can find online, they seem to be more powerful or dangerous than normal, commercial fireworks because some were confiscated by the police in this story… So… Flares for a flare gun, maybe? I’m not sure.
- A queue
- A flexible metal tube like this
- A flexible rubber tube used in wine production
- The wire that connects the conta-quilómetros (milometer) to the wheels
- Snake-shaped charm earring
- An angry or unreasonable person person
- A stripe or decoration on the sleeve of a military uniform (the words “galão” and “divisa” are also used in this context)
- The 15th and 16th definition are “male sexual organ” and “female sexual organ” respectively. Er… OK.
- A customs launch
- A kind of nautical strap with clips at the ends
In addition to the noun uses of bicha, we also have some other uses, mainly based on the definitions of bicha, rather than bicho.
- Bicha (adjective) effeminate, camp
- Bichar (verb) to fill up with worms, maggots or other yucky things (also “abichar”)
- Bichar (verb) to form a queue
You might be familiar with a few expressions using the same word. In addition to yesterday’s, we have…
- Bicha de conta-quilómetros = milometer
- Bicho da cozinha = kitchen hand
- De criar bicho = violent, intense
- Matar o bicho /mata-bicho = breakfast booze, the hair of the dog that bit you
- Matar o bicho do ouvido de alguém =to annoy someone with tips and suggestions
- Bicho de Sete Cabeças – a really hard problem
So it’s tempting to think of these words as equivalent to each other but for opposite genders, but that’s not really true, and it needs a little bit of effort to relax the mind enough to take in a different way of using them in different situations.
*The Portuguese version is closer to the original: A Quinta dos Animais if you’re interested.