5 Brazilian Portuguese phrases I wish we had in English

Author filming a funk rap in the streets of the Heliópolis favela during a youth media workshop. Credit: Thiago Nascimento
Author filming a funk rap in the streets of the Heliópolis favela during a youth media workshop. (Photo by Thiago Nascimento)

When I first came to Brazil two years ago for a human rights internship, my Portuguese was limited to a three-month crash course for Spanish speakers that I took in college.

Last week, I returned to Seattle from reporting and running youth workshops in the alleys of São Paulo’s biggest slum, where my teenage students, savvy friends and chatty neighbors have become my Portuguese professors. I regularly add new words and phrases to my Brazilian vocabulary as I hear them being used. These uniquely Brazilian words are a mix of Portuguese, diverse African languages, indigenous dialects, and a whole lot of street.

Beyond Rio 2016, soccer, samba, the Zika virus and the country’s pronounced political scandals, most Americans don’t know much about Brazil. While I can do my best to describe Brazil’s political climate in English, Brazilian words and expressions describe them to a tee. Let’s break it down:

1. Malandro é malandro e mané é mané

A Brazilian twist on “winners will be winners, losers will be losers,” the “malandro” is the clever trickster who always wiles his way to the top while the “mané” is the clumsy fool who ends up with the short end of the stick despite his better intentions.

In Brazil’s ongoing political corruption scandal, the malandros could be the money-mongering politicians who have taken over the government despite corruption allegations. Depending on how you look at it, there are two manés: the Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff, who appears to be framed in a political coup as she stands trial for impeachment, and the working-class, who struggle to stay afloat amidst soaring inflation and underhanded political bribes.

2. O jeitinho brasileiro

(Photo by Rodrigo Soldon and republished by a Creative Commons 2.0 license agreement. Photo pictured is a cropped version of the original photo).
(Photo by Rodrigo Soldon and republished by a Creative Commons 2.0 license)

You wouldn’t be “malandro” if you didn’t have your “jeitinho”: a way of skirting the rules or conventions to invent creative solutions to difficult problems despite limited resources.

Those with “jeitinho” are both celebrated for their craftiness in overcoming odds and blamed for ruining the game for everybody else.

Rio’s so-called “worst Olympic games” are a perfect example of the “jeitinho brasileiro” gone wrong: politicians skimping on resources and pocketing money out of construction projects to deliver horrendously polluted competing waters, haphazardly built roads and stadiums and unlivable athlete’s quarters.

3. Bagunça

A friend's son and his neighbor play in the dirt on their street just outside of Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Katherine Jinyi Li)
A friend’s son and his neighbor play in the dirt on their street just outside of Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Katherine Jinyi Li)

Across Brazilian media, there’s one word that keeps popping up to describe the giant mess the country is in right now: bagunça.

Of African origins, “bagunça” means disorder, bedlam, or shamble. And if this is at all indicative of Brazil’s situation, there are innumerable slang variations on the word “bagunça”: muvuca, farra, vadiagem, vagabundagem, zueira, treta, gandaia, fuzuê, fuzarca.

On the lighter side, many of these terms are also used to describe the fun that goes into making a mess, whether it’s a riotous block party or children playing in the dirt.

4. É rir para não chorar

If any expression captures the Brazilian spirit in the face of crisis, it’s “é rir para não chorar,” the idea that you have to laugh to not cry.

The national state of crisis and truly “bagunçado” turn of events leading up to the Olympic games only provided Brazilians with more hilarious joke fodder. Humorous news sites like Sensacionalista and Surrealista report both fake and real news to reflect the comedy of recent events.

And it wasn’t too long ago this “Friends” parody, which has been seen more than 3.3 million times, went viral. It’s a compilation of Brazil’s nighttime television news coverage of the Olympic Torch Relay, complete with awkward trips, slips and protestors with extinguishers.

5. Axé
Children play word dominoes in an afterschool program in the Heliópolis favela in São Paulo. (Photo by Bruno Ruiz)
Children play word dominoes in an afterschool program in the Heliópolis favela in São Paulo. (Photo by Bruno Ruiz)

Finally, what every Brazilian needs to get through these rough times is a good dose of “axé,” the sacred strength held by each Orixá, divine African ancestors who correspond to different forces of nature. This force is the namesake of an entire genre of music from Bahia. In the Afro-Brazilian religion of candomblé, one must ask for his “axé” to be reinvigorated through faithful offerings and rituals.

The full expression is “força e fé, é aquele axé,” or “strength and faith, you got that axé.” It can be used when you hear someone is going through a rough time, or just about to start or return from a long day of work. In the Heliópolis favela of southeastern São Paulo where I lived, I’d hear my Northeastern neighbors greet each other with an encouraging “É aquele axé” on their way to work or school.

And closing out in the spirit of axé, here’s Rappin’ Hood with his own version:

Editor’s note: This story has been updated since it’s original publication to correct the usage of “axe” to “É aquele axé.”

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1 Comment

  1. You’re a racist b-tch that should not travel. You probably don’t even realize your racism. Please stay in your middle class liberal Seattle neighborhood and never travel or write about other people.

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