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Itaquaquecetuba, Pau Grande, Não-me-toque: puzzling Brazilian city names

March 12, 2013 No Comment

One in every nine Brazilian cities is named after a Catholic saint, such as state capitals São Paulo and São Luis. Saint Joseph is particularly popular – there are 60 municipalities named São José, slightly more popular than São João, Santo Antonio and São Francisco.

Then, there is a huge number of cities with names that might be considered a little boring, mere geographical references to local rivers or hills, such as Ribeirão Preto (Black Stream), in the state of São Paulo, or Montes Claros (Fair Mountains), in Minas Gerais.

And then, there are all the others.

society culture  Itaquaquecetuba, Pau Grande, Não me toque: puzzling Brazilian city names

Seropédica, in the state of Rio, named after the Greeek name for a place where silk is produced. Photographed by Gian Cornachini/ Flickr

Foreigners have a hard time understanding and pronouncing some really bizarre city names that might be divided into these categories:

  • Native – Many cities were named in Tupi-Guarani, a group of Native languages that was dominant in the country till 300 years ago. Examples: Itacoatiara (in the state of Amazonas, means Painted Stone), Jacarepaguá (a neighborhood of Rio, means Shallow Pond of Alligators), Ananindeua (close to Belém, the capital of Pará state. It refers to the presence of many anani trees), Jericoacoara (famous beach in Ceará, means Sea Turtle Cove) and Paranapiacaba (in the state of São Paulo, means Where you will Find the Sea).
  • Gloomy - Boa Morte (Good Death), in Minas Gerais, or Terra da Morte (Death’s Land), in Amazonas. They also reveal their Catholic influence – generally, Boa Morte is short for Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte (Our Lady of Good Death).
  • Double entendre - The best example is Pau Grande (literally, Big Stick), in the state of Rio. Brilliant soccer player Garrincha (1933-1983) was born there, and this was a source of endless jokes, that he probably appreciated. Other good examples might be Pendura Saia (Hang the Skirt), in Goiás, Pintópolis (Dickland), in Minas Gerais, and Jardim de Piranhas (Garden of Piranhas, the voracious fresh eating fish, but also a slang for prostitute), in Rio Grande do Norte.
  • Simply strange - Não-me-toque (Don’t touch me) and Anta Gorda (Fat Tapir), both in Rio Grande do Sul, Ressaquinha (Little Hangover) and Rola-Moça (Rolling Girl), in Minas Gerais, Recursolândia (Resourceland), in Tocantins, Feliz Deserto (Happy Desert) and Jacaré dos Homens (Men’s Alligator), in Alagoas.

In case you can read Portuguese, you should visit the blog Coxixola, that reveals the delicious stories behind all these names. Feliz Deserto, for instance, is not arid, but excessively wet. One of its worst floods left 2.500 homeless, in 2005. It got this denomination thanks to its many sand dunes. Go figure.


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