March 2002

English for Brazucas

The Case of the Amputated Toe 

Why did Americans—who got rid of His Majesty's Redcoats,
and of the ancient pound-shilling-pence currency—preserve
to this day
the most illogical, unscientific, truly lunatic
collection of measures the world ever used?

Wilson Velloso

As soon as Brazilians settle in the USA, they notice that many non-English words are widely used here: pizza, burrito, limousine, chutzpah (effrontery, impudence, nerve cara-de-pau, desfaçatez, impudência). So they wonder: "What an imperialistic language!"

Referring to Portuguese, I might comment: "What a long-winded language! Look: Mafalda dos Anjos from Itapecerica-da-Serra, Fátima comes from Nuporanga, Maria Lúcia comes from Pindamonhangaba, Julinha Juju comes from Itapecuru-mirim! No wonder you prefer Joe, Bob, Al, as well as top, cash, up, pin, down, toe, chin. It's shorter!"

All that said and done, in Brazil many short Port words have been discarded for no valid reason and longer ones substituted. That is the case of my old friend artelho. It used to mean toe when I was a little boy. Today it means…zilch, NADA! It was replaced by dedo do pé. Why? Perhaps under the influence of Italians and Spaniards who called toes ditta del piede and dedos del pié. A phenomenon of contagious ignorance? Well, not exactly. Just one of many ways languages change, contort, fumble, juggle, grow, and decline.

French has retained its orteil, an obvious cousin of artelho. But few French emigrated to Brazil. Thus poor artelho became obsolete, archaic.

Why do words seem to be fashionable at a time, then fall off use? For as long time as futebol (soccer) has been established as a business in Brazil, football fields were surrounded by cercas. Then suddenly cercas were out. They became alambrados, wire fences. A friend bets that sportswriters—yearning to introduce a few foreign words of their own—are to blame. The same guys, he says, who brought alambrado call a football a balão, either from the Italian pallone or the Spanish balón (of the porteños Spanish). The Port word existed for hot air balloons, the traditional paper and tissue balões inflated by hot air from a burning wick (mecha). They set so many destructive fires that they forbade them.

Taking a foreign word—with a totally diverse meaning that is has in the source language—is a common linguistic phenomenon. In Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, the humble and very useful bidet (the French term actually means "small donkey") was morphed into a mesinha de cabeceira, bedside table.

I believe that we owe Helena Bechuat Sangirardi—who had already appropriated the title joy of cooking for her famous compilation Alegria de Cozinhar—the introduction of the term toboggan in Brazil spelled tobogã and with a wrong meaning. Thus, a proud ancient North American Indian (Algonquian) word, a racing sled—a long narrow vehicle of wood planks bent in front—was demoted and humiliated into a mere sliding slope, an escorrega ou escorregador for Rio kids. It was the latest, a última novidade, of new parquinhos, playgrounds.

Elevated to the rank of colunista, Helena next attempted to christen with a new vocabular invention the 8-door limousine that had been introduced as a lotação, collective taxi. Bechuat floated the name basset, to be pronounced bassê, after a "sausage-dog" similar to a dachshund. But the owner of the new fleet preempted the blow: he had his cars painted fire red and called them lagostas, cooked lobsters.

Meanwhile, the true toboggan, the North American Indian sled, perhaps demoralized by the Bechuat coup d'état , lost its name to bobsled but as bobsled earned many medals in Winter Olympic Games. It survived as a very fast non-engine adult toy that zips like crazy on a U-shaped track of natural ice, helped by gravity and the skill of its crew.

Linguistically, the Olympics, being international by definition, are fairly free of one toughest set of words that Brazucas ever encountered: the U.S. Customary Units of Weight and Measure—the craziest, archaic, superannuated "system" ever invented by men. A "system" put together by the British over untold centuries, based on the sizes of hands, arms, and legs of their kings and other personages.

Why did Americans—who got rid of the British in 1776, got rid of the King, of His Majesty's Redcoats, and of the ancient pound-shilling-pence currency, adopted a Constitution that is a marvelous political document—preserve to this day the most illogical, unscientific, truly lunatic collection of measures the world ever used? It's is a phenomenon that defies a clearly explanation.

In the 18th century, the American Revolutionists adopted a decimal system of currency, taking the old word dollar for its basic unit, but divided it in 100 cents. That was really revolutionary but perhaps it scared the framers of the Constitution: they left untouched the old amazing crazy quilt, the jumble of ordinary measurements. And we have been faithful to it all the way into in the Twenty-First Century!

As the decimal metric system was adopted by every country, even the crusty British shed their oddities and oldities and went metric. In America we remained chaotic.

It is really an enigma. You see, our weights and measurements have no substance, no definition of their own: they can only be defined in terms of metric units! Of course, doctors, chemists, scientists use the metrical system and have done so for a long time. Even in supermarkets, notice that electric scales—faced with the problem of having a pound, uma libra, divided in sixteenths—show pounds divided in tenths.

Then, if you are a traditionalist and ask for 4 ounces, (4 onças!) of cheese, for example, the attendant has to figure out that 4 ounces is ¼ pound, which shows in his scale as 2.5 tenths of pound. Isn't that absolutely ridiculous? You have to be a mathematician to be a sales clerk? Managgia la miseria, as seu Rocco exclaims.

So you know (or figured out while reading the previous paragraph) that 16 oz make a pound. But have you ever heard of a hundredweight? Abbreviation (in a mélange of Latin and English) cwt. Well, isn't so hard, a cwt weighs 100 pounds. (Although the British one was 112 pounds).

What is the next unit of weight? Brazucas, you guessed it, it is the tonelada, a measure of 1,000 kilograms. Americans also have tons but, as we hate simplification, we have two tons: the long ton, which weighs…2240 pounds; and the short ton, equal to 2,000 pounds. Isn't it nice, dandy, and obvious?

Things get really thick, though, when we delve into fluids and drinks. Here the basic unit is also called an ounce, to make things a bit more convoluted. But, to make it clearer, we say fluid ounce. If an oz of weight is 28.350 grams, an oz of liquid is …29.573 milliliters! Sixteen fl oz are a pint (pinta). If you have 2 pints of milk you have one quart (no Port name). Now, careful, if you have FOUR quarts you have a gallon (Port galão) which contains 3.785 litros.

(Before the Brits got metrically enlightened, they used the Imperial gallon, which was 1/5 larger, that is, equal to 1.201 U.S. gallons, or 4.546 liters.) American drivers, refueling in Canada, had fits when they saw the high price of gas per gallon (and had troubling understanding that a Canadian gallon was larger). Now they give somersaults of joy when they buy Canadian gas by the liter, which to gallon-thinking American looks a real bargain. Soon they complain again when the fuel does not last long.)

The "system" of length measurements is also a dilly. The basic unit is the inch polegada, that is, 2.54 centimeters. Twelve inches add up to 1 foot and there are 3 feet pés in a yard, which measures 914.4 millimeters, just under a meter. Then comes the road mile, milha, also "logical" at 1.760 yards (1609 meters). But, wait! There is also a nautical mile milha náutica, which measures 1852 meters. Yet for sentimental reasons, the sailing community kept it as the international mile milha internacional.

If my name were Torquemada, the Inquisitor, instead of Velloso (which only means hairy or peludo), I could line in, among measures of length, the rod, fathom, and furlough. And the acre which measures areas = 1 acre is equivalent to 4,047 square meters. And the barrel barril, so cute that its sizes vary from 31 to 42 U.S gallons. And the tub and the hogshead both variable.

And the peck that my crazy grandfather would call a celamim and holds 8.81 litros of liquid or small items such as rice, beans, etc. And the grain grão of 84.798 milligrams, the dram or dracma equivalent to 1.772 grams. And the scruple that was slightly more (1.296) than a gram, and the apothecary's ounce onça de boticário which at 31.108 grams was bigger than the usual ounce.

And hand of 4 inches, used to measure horse's sizes, the bushel of apples, the stone of 14 pounds that was used exclusively to weigh human beings.

Let us forever honor the Greeks, who divided the day in 24 hours, the hour in 60 minutes, and the minute in 60 second, in application of their base-60 sexagesimal sexagesimal numbering system.

Let us all go metric!

And may the United States of America join the world!

The author, who was good at arithmetic but clumsy at algebra and calculus, from time to time undergoes brain purges like this just to remind himself that, like Horace, he is nothing but pulvis et umbra , dust and shadow, and he's ready to return to dust.


2002 Wilson Velloso

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