Lost in non-translation


SAO PAULO — Dieting, mall-hating vegetarians, beware of Brazilians who invite you to a shopping for a cheese-salada and a cappuccino.

That’s because when Brazilians use words from English and other languages, they have a tendency to tweak the meaning and make them their own. Let’s dissect that offer.

Shopping is the Portuguese word for mall, and in many Brazilian cities, malls are as ubiquitous or more so than in the United States, so the word is quite common. A cheese-salada, actually spelled X-salada because the letter “x” is pronounced something very close to “cheese,” is in fact a hamburger with cheese and lettuce and perhaps other vegetables. And cappuccinos always include chocolate. (The exception that proves the rule: In a Brazilian Starbucks, order a cappuccino and you are urgently reminded that cappuccinos there are just espresso, milk and foam.)

One of the funny parts of learning Portuguese in Brazil is how often you realize that the weird word you can’t quite make sense of is actually an English word, mispronounced and used to mean something other than what you thought.

There are many examples.

Perhaps the most obvious is what Brazilians refer to as a motel, which is in fact not a “motorist hotel” but a short-term hotel meant for romantic trysts. Well, in a sense it is a motorist hotel, because most are located on the outskirts of town, too far to walk, and each room comes with a private garage to shield your car and its license plate number from prying eyes. It’s just that the motorists always come in pairs and want to have sex with each other.

Sticking with sleeping quarters, there is also the flat (pronounced FLAT-chee). When Brazilians mention they are staying in a flat, that does not mean that 1) they have rented an apartment and 2) they learned English in London. Rather, it means that they are staying in a short-term furnished apartment where housekeeping services are provided. Actually, flat is a conveniently shorter way of expressing that, even with the extra extraneous syllable added on.

Then there’s a blitz, which refers specifically to a police checkpoint for drunk drivers and the like. Funk (FUNK-ee) does not refer to 1960s music by James Brown or Sly and the Family Stone, but a native urban genre, related to rap and reggaeton, that descended from poor favelas into mainstream Brazilian music in the 21st century. And a chip (SHE-pee), is the term not for a piece of chocolate in your cookie or ice cream (that’s a floco) but for a SIM card. Bike (BY-kee) is the term for the class offered in gyms that we call spinning. Hard to argue with that one.

An oldie but goodie is the verb phrase “fazer Cooper” which means literally “to do Cooper” but in fact means to “go jogging,” in honor of Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who coined the term aerobics in the United States in the late 1960s but found himself coined in Brazil after assisting in the training of the victorious 1970 World Cup soccer team. And some are slangy, like the term show, which came to mean “cool” or “awesome” a few years ago, or night, which means “going out on the town,” principally in the slang of Rio de Janeiro.

Often, the changed meaning comes from shortening a term. Sometimes, you just remove a letter, like in short, which is not the opposite of “long,” but of “long pants.” But more often it’s a whole word, as in shopping, which comes from “shopping center.” It’s also the case with self-service, which refers not to a gas station policy but to “self-service” restaurants where customers fill plates from a buffet and then pay by weight. (It’s usually one of the best deals in town.)

Journalists here learn that off is Portuguese for off the record. But you don’t conduct an interview off, you conduct it em off, which translates, oddly, as “on off.” In marketing terminology, an outdoor is a “billboard,” derived presumably from “outdoor advertisement.” Which raises the question: If you installed a billboard within a domed stadium, would it be an indoor outdoor?

Alas, I cannot reveal the answer: It was told to me on off.

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