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Flying Words

Flying Words

Brazilians, in their eagerness to learn English, engender
terrible Anglicisms. A very sad one is
cometer suicídio
instead of suicidar
or even suicidar-se, a double
reflexive verb in Portuguese.
Wilson Velloso

It’s a law of linguistics that words’ meanings change from time to time and as they move from place to place. It is
even more so in the case of languages that migrate, that is, in the majority of the so-called Western languages.

If you ever read the Bible in English, King James’s Version, you may realize that not all the words in that literary
monument (which I consult often and not for religious purposes) in today’s America mean the same as they did in the XVII century England.

One such term is corn, which in the English Bible means
wheat (trigo). Since American Indians cultivated a similar
plant, maize, (milho) which was an excellent food, the Pioneers got mixed up with their (perhaps non-existent) botany and fell
into the habit of calling maize corn. Etymologically,
wheat—derived from the Germanic weizen—means simply white, probably because of the color of its flour.

A warning though: corned beef, which is called the same in Brazil (where it is manufactured in great quantity and
exported to the US), means spiced beef, carne bovina,
with grains of salt, for preservation. No connection with the grain.

Also, the colloquialism corny (banal, simplório, jeca, caipira,
meloso) has nothing to do with corn
directly. It merely reflects a bias of the city dwellers of a generation ago that farmers were less smart than their brethren who live in big
places. After a few generations, the city dweller learned better
(se avivou) and the term is on its way out—except when applied
to foreigners.

The Pioneers had become history when the West was opened
(desbravado) and won and the great herds of
bisons (scientific name Bison
) faced destruction. The ignorant settlers called those animals
buffaloes and proceeded to kill them by the thousands. In Portuguese, the right name is
bisão or bisonte. Now perhaps it is too late to make any change in American
English as there are even several places called Buffalo, including a big city in New York State.

In Florida, there is a carnivore called locally
Florida panther, actually on its way to extinction. It is no panther but a
cousin of the Brazilian onça. It seems that Americans are not too good in zoology, either, because they don’t seem to know the
difference between a camel (two humps) and the one-lumped,
dromedary. Any alfabetizado
(literate) Brazilian knows that
dromedaries are not camels.

Appparently, some American cigarette makers never learned that. Packages of the cigarette
Camels are illustrated with the figure of a dromedary!

On the other hand, Brazilians, in their eagerness to
learn English, engender terrible Anglicisms. A very sad one is
cometer suicídio instead of suicidar
or even suicidar-se, a double reflexive verb in Portuguese. It comes from Latin
se occidere (matar-se, kill
) and needs NO auxiliary verb. Neither should it be used with

In Portuguese, cometer (which means
to do—fazer, praticar to practice, to trust,
confiar, encarregar to charge
someone of, to deliver,
entregar, oferecer,
to offer, to propose, propor,
compreender,to understand, to try or
to attempt, tentar) is the wrong verb in any case, shape or form. In short, you can
cometer a crime, a disloyalty (deslealdade,
safadeza), a treason
(traição). Always to somebody else, never to yourself.

Samanta P.R. sent me an amusing e-mail message wondering why didn’t Americans revert to the ancient Roman
numbering, I V L C M—for 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 1000—when they got so set on being "conservative" when they swallowed, hook, line
and sinker, the whole incredible English systems of weights and measures. She added a question about how come the U.S. is
now the only country in the world using the Fahrenheit thermometer?

Dear Samanta, you must have noticed that anything connected with colleges and churches comes numbered Roman
style still. As to the Fahrenheit thermometer, invented by the German Gabriel Fahrenheit in the
18th century, based as it is with water freezing at 32ºF (why not 27½?) and boiling at 212ºF (why not 333?), was for a short while used in France then adopted
by the English-speaking world and only abandoned (by the English and the whole British Commonwealth) late in the
20th century. It still is the official measure for temperatures in America, one of those inexplicable things of American culture.
Ignorance is defended in the name of "freedom of thinking." What thinking? In justice, it must be pointed out that scientists and
other thinking people have been, on the sly, using the universal Celsius (or centigrade) scale with its decimal values.

But there are still many odd things in the United States of America. We have Americans who believe, and argue
about it, that God created the world at 9 a.m. on October 4, 4004 B.C.! There are others who reject evolution and want to replace
it in schools with creationism, a vague teaching largely based on religious beliefs, full of chronological holes. And, last
but not least, even after photographs of the Earth taken from space and from the moon, there are Americans who swear that
this planet is…flat!

No wonder, then, that in matters of language, grammar, style, etc the mess
(bagunça) reigns supreme. Americans
mock the French, the Spaniards, etc. because their Academies try to keep things in good order and correctly defined.

The obedient Americans who believe so much tripe their governments dish out, and accept phenomenal
explanations, cannot accept anybody telling them that they are murdering the English language. I concede that it is not so bad as it is in Brazil where they are really shredding the Portuguese language without
putting anything else in its place. Everything is copied, imitated, aped from English, usually bad English. Fortunately for Americans, not a single stronger non-English language exists that they may want to ape from. That is
one of the advantages of being—and living in—the First World.

But I digress. I have a few last tidbits for
Brazuca readers. What about the aspirated H, that in Brazilian translated
comics (histórias em quadrinhos) is "translated" as Rrr, like in "Rra, rah, rah" to represent laughter? Isn’t there in Brazil an
editor, a supervisor with enough good sense capable of catching such false steps?

Let’s conclude, however, on a positive, or at least a facetious note. For many years, English visitors in Portugal took
a great liking to marmelada, a sweet paste made into bricks; sometimes spread on bread and toast.
Marmelada is made with marmelos,
a tart apple-looking fruit whose English name is
quince. But the English thought that marmelada
was ANY fruit compote, ANY fruit preserve. So they took the name, imported Spanish Valencia oranges and began making and
exporting marmalade.

There are today marmalades made of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, and all kinds of fruit. The modest Portuguese
marmelada was derailed, got lost in the way. Even in Spanish the word
mermelada—taken from English—describes that sort of jam,
although in Spain they do grow membrillos
(marmelos). So do the Italians, who do have their
composta and call it "marmellata
); or the French, who call
marmalade a confiture d’oranges amères,
a compote (made) of bitter oranges.

No wonder the Argentines, who live next to the Brazilians in South America, think that all Brazilians are
cariocas. Tendremos el sábado el partido del equipo carioca de futbol del Atlético Mineiro.
What does it matter that the Atlético is not
from Rio? It’s all the same difference as American teenagers say.

WV thanks readers who have written to him, commenting on these
"mal traçadas linhas". The address is the same
as before: vewilson@3oaks.com 

©2002 Wilson Velloso

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