17 September 2012

My First Five Portuguese Vocabulary Words

When you jump into a new language at a fairly late age, you take the grammar, the vocabulary and the expressions as they come, and tread water as best you can. You learn the basics — hello, how are you, I'm fine, thanks, what time is it? — and with perseverance you keep on building until you reach a whole new level of effective communication — what do you have in the way of anti-wrinkle face cream? Sorry, I can't eat this, I'm allergic to it. How many certified translations did you say you require? But in all of this swirl of language-learning, I will always remember five words I learned in my first couple of weeks in Brazil:

1. Tiroteio [chee-ru-TAY-u] (a shootout) — There are unfortunately lots of shootout stories that make news around the world, and the Brazilian press certainly keeps up its end. As soon as I arrived and started scanning the newspapers here, tiroteio stared me in the face over and over, and it was a mystery to me. It was a romance language word I couldn't hang my hat on. Where were the roots of the French fusillade, or coups de feu? Well, off I went to the dictionaries, and tiroteio has stuck in my head ever since as one of my very first words. Anyway, I at least had a leg up as I began reading Brazilian police thrillers.

Mr. M. himself
2. Jeitinho [szhay-CHEEN-yu] (a manner, a way, or what Americans might call "Yankee ingenuity") — Everyone but everyone uses this word here in Brazil, so I heard it and learned it early on. It's an integral part of the Brazilian character. But it took years for me to understand fully that there's good jeitinho (knowing how to solve a problem efficiently) and bad jeitinho (bribing a public official to look the other way as you add an illegal extension on your house). Some of the best jeitinho I've seen here came from one of our caseiros (caretakers) who had watched his fair share of MacGyver reruns. There was nothing this kid couldn't fix if given a hammer, bubble paper and an empty mayonnaise jar. And that leads us to the next word . . .

3. Gambiarra [gam-bee-YAH-ha] (jury rig) — If you have really good jeitinho, you can always improvise a successful gambiarra. We thank our very first caseiro for this word. "What are we going to do?" we asked him, staring at the water gushing from a leak, certain that he didn't have the experience or the technical know-how needed. "No problem, I'll do a gambiarra," he said. A what? Well, he had the problem fixed in the time it took us to look the word up in the dictionary. Although a gambiarra originally referred to the mess of theater lights of different sizes and colors above a stage, it has come to mean any kind of creative jury rigging. Every so often even I can do a good gambiarra — at least until we can get a professional in.

The original gambiarra
The new gambiarra

4. Saideira [sigh-DAY-rah] (one for the road) — Here's a great, economical word that really delivers in one delicious mouthful the meaning of four words in English (or five, if you want one more for the road). As soon as I learned it, I embraced it and repeated it often (perhaps too often?). But I never hear it or use it now without seeing this version of Frank Sinatra singing One For My Baby.

5. Bagunça [bah-GOON-sah] (a mess) — I heard this word over and over before I had any idea what it meant. Everything seemed to be called a bagunça: a child's bedroom, store displays, urban signage, the political scene or even a bad Botox job. It all fell into place when I realized it was our "what a mess!" I now use it whenever I can, particularly if I need to end a conversation.  Once you proclaim something is a bagunça, there's nothing more to say.

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