Au Revoir, Dictionary-Man

Au Revoir,

By Alessandra Dalevi

With characteristic humility Antônio Houaiss used to call himself "a humble word
worker. I am no poet or creator." And yet his work was the highly sophisticated one
of building dictionaries and encyclopedias. The respected intellectual and former minister
died March 7, in Rio, at age 83, after being in the hospital since December to treat
chronic pneumonia. Houaiss died before concluding his most ambitious project, an extensive
Portuguese dictionary, with the origins for every word listed, which he was having
difficulty financing.

Born on October 15, 1915, in Rio, Houaiss was the fifth of seven children of Lebanese
immigrant Habib Assad Houaiss and Brazilian Malvina Farjalla Houaiss. He was raised in the
legendary beach neighborhood of Copacabana. The scholar loved the sea and became an
excellent swimmer.

His marriage lasted until the death of his spouse in 1988. He married his
wife—Ruth Marques de Sales, a Latin teacher from Bahia—in 1942. They had no
children. Also in 1942, he graduated in classic letters from Faculdade Nacional de
Filosofia da Universidade do Brasil. From 1934 to 1946 he worked as a Latin, Portuguese,
and Literature high school teacher until he was accepted into the Itamaraty (the Foreign
Service) as a diplomat.

For someone so unassuming he possessed an impressive collection of titles: philologist,
encyclopedist, Culture Minister (under President Itamar Franco), diplomat, translator, and
teacher. From 1978 to 1981 he was Rio’s Writers Union president. And he was an
"Immortal," one of the 40 for-life members of the ABL (Academia Brasileira de
Letras—Brazilian Academy of Letters). Houaiss was admitted to the ABL in 1971 and was
its president in 1996. He was buried at the ABL’s mausoleum in the São João Batista
cemetery in Rio.

He became in 1964 one of the first victims of the military dictatorship that lasted
from 1964 to 1985. Houaiss was stripped from his civil rights for 10 years and forced into
a premature retirement. A blessing in disguise because it led the lexicographer to
dedicate himself full time to his intellectual endeavors, in particular to his
dictionaries and encyclopedias. That’s when he also found time for the Herculean task of
translating James Joyce’s Ulysses.

He wrote close to 50 books including A Nova Ortografia da Língua Portuguesa (Portuguese
Language New Orthography), O Que é a Língua? (What’s Language?) and A Crise da
Nossa Língua de Cultura (The Crisis of Our Language of Culture). Houaiss also helped
to establish the definitive text for several Brazilian writers including Lima Barreto,
Gonçalves Dias, and Augusto dos Anaw6kx. The English-Portuguese Dictionary edited by
James L. Taylor and the Webster’s English-Portuguese Dictionary both compiled by
him can be found at the Amazon Internet bookstore ( To
celebrate his 80th birthday the Civilização Brasileira publishing house released Antônio
Houaiss: uma Vida (Antônio Houaiss: a Life), a tribute book written by 41 authors.

Speaking about Houaiss’s death, Arnaldo Niskier, president of the Academy of Letters
declared: "The Brazilian culture lost its greatest philologist. The man who
personified a tradition of great names in the cultivation of the Portuguese language. The
Academy also lost a great fighter for the establishment of an orthographic agreement for
unifying the Portuguese language. The best way to pay homage to his memory is to guarantee
that this agreement, which has dragged on since 1990, be finally signed by the seven
countries of the Portuguese-speaking community (Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Mozambique,
Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe). This was his biggest dream. In
the last years his passion was divided between the fight for the orthographic agreement
and the making of his big multimedia dictionary which should be released in September

The new dictionary, which will be called Houaiss in an homage to its creator, will
contain about 320,000 terms with etymological and morphological explanations, double the
entries of the most popular Brazilian current dictionary, the Aurélio, prepared by
Aurélio Buarque de Holanda. Research on the dictionary—started in 1986—had
stopped between ’92 and ’97 for lack of funds. Now there are 50 experts working on it.
Ninety percent of the work has already been concluded. Most of the effort now will be
concentrated on proofreading.

Houaiss’s defense of the new orthography brought him some enemies even amongst his
fellow members in the Academy and he was accused of pushing legislation for self-benefit
so he could better sell his new dictionary. His Ulysses translation, which first
appeared in 1966, was very controversial. Some critics accused him of giving too much
importance to the linguistic aspect of the book forgetting other angles. Houaiss defended
himself: "Joyce deliberately practiced violence against the English language. It was
a new language. I, as a translator, tried to do the same."

Houaiss believed in the power of culture saying that "the culture doesn’t intend
to change only the vision of the world, but wishes to change the reality when this is

His term as Culture minister didn’t last more than one year, though. The intellectual
in him was never capable of wearing the political suit. He abandoned the post criticizing
the ridiculous 0.03% of the budget reserved for culture and lambasting pork-barrel

Politically active, he helped to found the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (Brazilian
Socialist Party). More recently he defined himself—not without irony—as a
"post-agnostic and a pre-Christian." In the ’50’s, while serving as a diplomat,
Houaiss was placed in "inactive status" after being accused of involvement with
the left. Only in 1990 was he was officially reinstated as a diplomat.

The intellectual was an acerbic critic of the Brazilian educational system. He used to
say that educationally Brazil was still a country in the 18th century, when
only 2% of the population knew how to read. He never accepted the statistics indicating
that 30% of Brazilians are illiterate. Houaiss believed that 70% of the Brazilian
population is functionally illiterate.

On the hobby front Houaiss was famous for his knowledge and ability around the kitchen.
And he was very proud of being a gourmet. He called himself, with self-created neologisms,
"mestre nas artes comestória e bibitória," (master in the eatatory and
drinkatory arts). It wasn’t uncommon for him to abandon his fellow guests at the table to
join the chef in the kitchen at a friend’s house or in a restaurant.

"The secret of eating well is variety," he used to teach.

In 1958 he founded the Confraria dos Gastrônomos (Gastronomes Brotherhood) where he
stayed until 1975. He left there for disagreeing with new member President General Emílio
Garrastazu Médici who joined the gourmets’ club in 1975. Four years later he started a
new group, the Companheiros da Boa Mesa (Companions of the Good Table). For all his love
of good food he never lost his thin figure, which was cause for envy from friends and foes

He even wrote his own cook book, Magia da Cozinha Brasileira (Brazilian Cuisine
Magic) (1979), with 100 recipes of regional Brazilian cuisine. He came back to the subject
in 1986 with Receitas Rápidas (Fast Recipes), a collection of 81 dishes for those
amateur chefs de cuisine in a hurry. A beer lover, he also authored A Cerveja e Seus
Mistérios (The Beer and Its Mysteries).

For him, cooking was something cultural and he criticized men incapable of donning an
apron and going to the kitchen: "Men who are not interested in eating, or that snub
going into the kitchen, are male chauvinists who believe they can become more macho by
doing this."


Anthologies and Essays:

Prefácio, in vida urbana (1956)

Crítica avulsa (1960)

Seis poetas e um problema, estudos de crítica literária, estilística e ecdótica

Augusto dos Anaw6kx, poesia, antologia, introdução e notas (1960)

Qual prefácio, in A rima na poesia de Carlos Drummond de Andrade, de Hélcio
Martins (1968)

Introdução, in Reunião: 10 livros de poesia, de Carlos Drummond de Andrade

Crítica literária e estruturalismo, in II Simpósio de língua e literatura
portuguesa (1969)

Drummond mais seis poetas e um problema (1976)

Homenagem a Joaquim Cardoso, conferência (1978)

Estudos vários sobre palavras, livros e autores (1979)

Philology, Bibliology:

Tentativa de descrição do sistema vocálico do português culto na área dita
carioca, dialectologia e ortofonia (1959)

Sugestões para uma política da língua (1960)

O Serviço de Documentação da Presidência da República (1960)

Introdução filológica às Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, fixação do texto
crítico (1961)

Elementos de bibliologia (1967)

A crise de nossa língua de cultura (1983)

O português no Brasil (1985)

O que é língua? (1990)

A nova ortografia da Língua Portuguesa (1991)


A defesa (1979)

Brasil—O fracasso do conservadorismo (1985)

Brasil-URSS – 40 anos do estabelecimento de relações diplomáticas, colective work

Socialismo e liberdade, with Roberto Amaral (1990)

Variações em torno do conceito de democracia, with Roberto Amaral (1992)

Socialismo—Vida, morte e ressurreição (1993)

A modernidade no Brasil—Conciliação ou ruptura? (1995)

Os socialistas e a guerra (1991)

Texts by Classics:

Obras de Lima Barreto, with Francisco de Assis Barbosa and Manuel Cavalcanti
Proença (1956)

O texto dos poemas, in Gonçalves Dias, poesia e prosa escolhida (1959) 

Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, de Machado de Assis (1961)

Eu, outras poesias, poemas esquecidos, de Augusto dos Anaw6kx (1965); Edições
críticas de Obras de Machado de Assis (1975).


Anais do Primeiro Congresso Brasileiro de Língua Falada no Teatro (1956)

Novo dicionário Barsa das línguas inglesa e portuguesa , 2 vols., with
Catherine B. Avery (1964)

Grande enciclopédia Delta-Larousse, 12 volumes

Enciclopédia Mirador Internacional, 20 volumes and 1 atlas (1975)

Pequeno dicionário enciclopédico Koogan-Larousse (1979)

Vocabulário ortográfico da Língua Portuguesa (1981)

Webster’s dicionário inglês-português, 2 volumes, with Ismael Cardim and
other (1982).


Magia da cozinha brasileira (1979)

Receitas Rápidas (1986)

A cerveja e seus mistérios (1986)

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