5 Brazilian expressions inspired by History

Igreja do Pilar, in Ouro Preto, that might have inspired the expression "conto do vigário". Photo by Marcelo Costa/Flickr

Several expressions deeply ingrained in Brazilian daily language have interesting and unexpected origins. Here are some of them:

1 – Nas coxas (literally, “on the upper legs”. It means “done quickly, with no quality”)

There are two versions for its origin. One version says it refers to  the clay tiles used in houses built during the colonial period. They were normally made with a mold in order to be uniform, but sometimes the mold wasn’t available and the slaves would improvise, molding the tiles on their own legs. Because they had several sizes, the quality was very uneven.  But the expression might also be a sexual reference – it might be inspired by men who inseminate women’s legs, instead of the right place.

2 – Conto do vigário (literally, “the vicar’s story”. It means fraud)

The origin of this expression is not certain, but here is a popular version:   in the 18th century, a statue of the Virgin Mary was offered to two churches dedicated to the saint in the historic city of Ouro Preto, in Minas Gerais. So, the priests of the curches of Nossa Senhora do Pilar and Nossa Senhora da Conceição had to find a way to decide which parish would keep the statue. A donkey that was grazing near by was installed mid-way between the two churches and it was established that the animal, guided by the saint, would walk towards the church favored by Mary. He walked to the Pilar church. Now, here is the trick: some time later it was revealed that the donkey belonged to the Pilar priest, who trained the beast beforehand to guarantee a favorable result.

3 – Quinto dos infernos (literally, the fifth part of Hell, it means something awful. It is used in insults, when you wish the worst fate to you enemies)

Quinto was a tax imposed by the Portuguese colonizers. Every landowner was obliged to pay one fifth of his gains to the Crown – and everyone would try to evade this obligation (sometimes hiding the money inside hollow saints, known as santinho do pau oco).

4 – Para inglês ver (literally, for British eyes. It means: a promise made for mere formality, with no real substance)

In 1824, right after the Declaration of Independence from Portugal, the Brits determined that Brazil should abolish slave trade in seven years. In 1831, Diogo Feijó, the priest that was leading government, produced a confuse law that abolished it only on paper.

5 – Eles que são brancos, que se entendam (literaly, it is up to them, the white people, to reach an agreement. It means: let others find a solution. I am washing my hands)

It is associated to an episode that occured in the 18th century. A mulatto captain asked his superior to punish one of the soldiers that was in his battalion. The official refused, saying it was up to them, mulattos, to decide the issue by themselves. The captain complained to the Portuguese vice-roy, Luís de Vasconcelos, who decided to punish his superior for ignoring the problem and said: “Nós somos brancos, cá nos entendemos”. (among us, white man, we will find a solution).

Source:  Locuções Tradicionais no Brasil – book by the great folklorist Luís da Câmara Cascudo


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