Words borrowed from Brazil into English. by English with Stephen

Word Stories: Brazil in English

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Hello and welcome to Learning English with Stephen. I have been living and working in Brazil for the last 15 years. In that time, I have tried to learn Portuguese. It is still not perfect, and probably never will be. One of the things I like to do is find connections between Portuguese and English. There are lots of words that Brazilian Portuguese has borrowed from English. But there are also many words that English has borrowed from Brazil. And that is what we are going to talk about today: English words with Brazilian Portuguese origins.

But first, some music.

Before we start, I’d just like to remind you that in a couple of weeks I will be celebrating my 10th episode. I have decided to answer any questions you might have about me, the English language or learning English. There is still time to ask a question by searching for Learning English with Stephen on Facebook or Instagram. Alternatively, you could go to my site EnglishwithStephen.com to leave a comment. On the site, you will also find a transcript of this episode to help you learn new vocabulary.

Now, on with the show!

The first word we are going to look at is one that is very popular with many of my friends who come to visit. A caipirinha is an alcoholic drink made from a local Brazilian type of rum called cachaca and mixed with ice, sugar and lime juice. The word caipirinha is made up of two parts. A caipira someone who lives in the countryside, works on a farm and is not very well-educated. Kind of like ‘hillbilly’ in English. The end of the word, inha, is a diminutive form that Brazilians like to add onto almost any word.

Personally, I hate this drink, but there is another drink called caipiroska which substitutes vodka for rum. I am not the only person who likes this. Yes, I am talking to you, mum!

The next word is originally from the Tupi-Guarani language. Tupi-Guarani is an indigenous language that existed long before Europeans came here. Brazilian Portuguese has adopted a number of these indigenous words, and the cashew nut is one of them. In the original Tupi, acaju means ‘the nut that produces itself’.

Another word that comes from the Tupi-Guarani language is the piranha – this is the scary fish that, legend has it, can eat a dog that falls into the river in a few seconds. It originally meant ‘biting fish’, which is perfectly descriptive.

It’s time now to move on to the topic of music, and firstly samba. This is a dance that originated in Africa but was brought to Brazil by the enslaved people. The original dance was called ‘zampapalo’ which meant ‘stupid man’, but originally meant ‘to bump or crash’. This is entirely appropriate because when I try to samba I just end up crashing to the floor.

Another type of music from Brazil is bossa nova. This style came from the beach culture of Rio de Janeiro. In the 1950s, bossa was a slang word used for anything that was cool or trendy. Nova means new, so this type of music was a new trend or a new fashion at the time. If you look for a translation of bossa nova you usually find ‘new wave’.

Despite the stereotypes of happy Brazilians drinking caipirinha and dancing samba, life here can be hard, especially if you live in a favela. If you look up the ‘favela’ in a dictionary today you will see the word ‘slum’ as a synonym. Both words describe a poor, rundown area of a town or city with few basic amenities like water or electricity.

Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro.

Image from Wikipedia

The very first favela was founded in 1897. Victorious veterans from a war in the north of Brazil had returned to Rio and were hoping to be given the land that had been promised to them. Unfortunately for them, they never received the land. Instead, they took over a hill that lies near the port. The hill reminded these military veterans of one they had fought on in the war. On that hill, there were lots of small trees called favela, and so the community was given its name. Later, the veterans were joined by freed slaves and other poor working people as it was the only place close to the city that they could afford.

Zombie – This word originates from West Africa and was the name of a snake god. It was then brought to the island of Haiti by slaves, where it entered voodoo folklore as a reanimated corpse. However, the first time it appeared in English was in a book on the history of Brazil by a poet called Robert Southey.

In Brazil, the word for zombie is zumbi. This doesn’t just refer to the living dead, but also to the famous Zumbi dos Palmares. Zumbi was born in Africa and became one of the leaders of the resistance movement against slavery. He was involved in a community of escaped slaves and was the last king of his people. He is seen as a hero among many black Brazilian people.

As we have seen, Brazilian Portuguese is influenced by European Portuguese, African slaves and the indigenous people. This is the same for Brazil in general with all these three cultures, as well as others, merging, combining and competing to produce something new. The last word we are going to look at perfectly represents this idea.

Capoeira is a martial art that was created by African slaves in Brazil. They were prohibited from practising their traditional cultures and also prohibited from learning to fight. In response, when the slaves were able to come together, they created a new cultural event called capoeira. Capoeira looks like a dance with two people using acrobatic moves in time to some music. However, the dance moves are actually disguised attack and defence moves.

There is no agreement on where the word comes from, with three different theories that represent the Portuguese, African and indigenous cultures in Brazil. The first theory is that it comes from the Portuguese capão. A capão, or capon in English, is a castrated male chicken. The cage where these animals are kept in a market is a capoeira. The idea is that slaves who were selling these chickens at market would practise their dance near the cages while they were waiting for customers.

The second theory comes from the indigenous Tupi-Guarani language. The idea here that caapoêra means an area of the forest that has been cleared for agriculture. The theory is that escaped slaves used to congregate near these areas and used capoeira to fight against people who were trying to catch them again.

The final theory is that the word comes from the Klongo language of West Africa. The original meaning of the word was to refer to sweeping ground movements, which is one of the most common movements in the martial art of capoeira.

So while the origins of the word are not clear, I find it very interesting that there are possible origins from all three major Brazilian cultures.

So there we have my quick rundown of words in English that come from Brazil. What about you? Are there any words that English has borrowed from your language or country? If you are from Brazil, what other words has English borrowed from you?

And don’t forget, you get a transcript of this podcast by going to EnglishwithStephen.com. You can also leave any questions there so that I can answer them in the celebratory 10th episode.

Goodbye, or as they say in Brazil, Tchau!

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