Is there a Brazilian fixation with saco (scrotum)?
The use of the less than elegant word by a top cabinet member in reference
to his chief, President Cardoso, has provoked the ire of some and the laughter
of the majority.
In a sudden surge of Victorian prudery, the Câmara dos Deputados —
the Brazilian House of Representatives — came down hard, hot, and hurt
on a presidential spokesman for using language “unfit a gentleman
and a minister.”
It seems that Communications Minister Sérgio (“Serjăo”) Motta
joined his countrymen in the enjoyment of a new found democratic freedom:
the freedom of being emphatic although mildly vulgar and gross in public.
Not that he coined any nasty term. What he uttered was actually an inelegant
but perfectly acceptable expression. The august Congressmen’s sense of
outrage was greeted with cynical laughter by many for its blatant hypocrisy,
linguistic and/or sociological musings by the major media, and by audible
yawns of “So, what else is new?” by the general public.
The alleged Motta atrocity was referring to President Fernando Henrique
Cardoso’s quality of being a real mensch — a tough, hard as nails,
100 per cent reliable man of his words — when he said that “o
Presidente tem o saco preto” (the President has a black bag).
Translated into English of course this does not make much sense, except
as an allusion to collecting unlawful bribes or contributions. But that
is not the case at all. Motta used the colloquialism to explain why the
President had acted against a man allegedly involved in the dealings surrounding
a large bank’s failure, even if the chum was his own son-in-law.
The reason for the hue and cry was instead the fact that the “bag”
in issue is merely a Brazilian familiar way to say scrotum, the
skin pouch containing and protecting the testicles. At this point, a sociologist
would introduce learned commentary on the apparent concern Brazilians of
all classes and colors have had with saco since about the turn of
the century. But as my sociology degree is somewhat musty, I shall not
attempt to explain the whys and wherefores of such a fixation. However,
I have some linguistic savvy, with emphasis on the etymology of colloquialisms
and dare to spend my two bits on the case.
These are the facts:
- All Brazilian boys have been born with purple, almost black, scrota
since Brazil was found by the Portuguese almost 500 years ago, in 1500:
that is, at least, what some newsmen explain after interviewing scores
of ob-gyn doctors and midwives. They add that the dark coloration often
changes to pink a few days after birth. And even many who later turn up
gays are born with “black bags.”
- Therefore, mentioning sacos in conversation has been done for generations
by male and female citizens. With very little scandal, if any. If the term
may be used at home, in front of the whole family, why should there be
such a flap when uttered in Congress? Do the illustrious deputados imply
that they are placed above the populace, etiquettewise?
- Another fact is that Brazilians have an idée fixe with both the front
and rear ends of human beings. It is well-known that a well-turned up female
bunda (buttocks) is deemed to be “a thing of beauty and of joy forever,”
much better than any Grecian urn of Keats. As a matter of fact, a disreputable
wag once suggested that the blue globe of the Brazilian flag, which passes
for an astronomical map of the Rio sky on the day when the Republic was
proclaimed, should be replaced by a lady’s butt, chosen in a nationwide
beauty contest. It must be said inter alia that bunda is an African word
also used in the Caribbean créole. In Portugal, the vernacular and common
term is cu just as it is in French. Ironically, this monosyllable is considered
too coarse for proper language in Brazil…
- Reporters with leanings to political history say that the Congressional
blow-up (“hot air bags in arms because of commonplace bags”)
was merely a psychological throwback as it painfully brought to mind the
impeached President Collor, who grossly boasted of the purple color of
his private parts. Let Collor and his things rest in Miami, where the ex-Prez
spends his days pumping iron, jogging, sailing and, like any overthrown
Latin American pol, missing his helicopter and his escort of siren screaming,
lights blazing motorcycles.
- The rainbow syndrome apart, the male “saco” is by no means
the only case of colloquialism. From the Oyapock in the North to the Chuí
in the South, in the Federative Republic of Brazil that took over from
the United States of Brazil, everybody talks about encher o saco and puxar
saco. The first, which translates as “bag filling,” means to
dish out harassment, being a pain in the neck, a bore. The second, “bag
pulling,” means pandering, brown nosing, to flatter for profit, etc.
- Even circumspect high-born ladies of “good families” calmly
say năo me encha o saco (don’t fill my bag), meaning
don’t bother me, don’t waste my time, don’t be a pain. Estar de saco cheio
(to have a full bag) means I am fed up, tired of your insinuations, your
insistence, etc. Therefore, a person who doesn’t heed the entreaties is
a bag filler, an enchedor de saco.
- Puxa saco, however, is something else again. It should not be included
in the same league because it refers to a different saco, the collection
bag in a church, researchers of the folklore affirm. Apparently, it comes
from the ancient practice of having favorite altar boys take the collection,
a plum assignment because the lads could always pick loose change for a
flic or candy. The parish priest, being knowledgeable in the ways of the
human race, looked the other way, dismissing it as a very venial sin. A
mere pecadillo. As the boys vied with each other to be chosen to “pull
the collection bag,” they plied the padre with adulation, in the hope
of being his puxa saco for the day.
- A mineiro friend of mine, now living in Virginia, tells me that in
Carangola, a city in his native Minas Gerais State in Brazil, there is
a curious synonym for “puxa saco” — cheiraco. It brings to mind
our Americanism “brown nose” which, according to the Random House
dictionary, means “to curry favor, to behave obsequiously.” Now
- All Brazilian boys have been born with purple, almost black, scrota
Colloquialisms pop up just like that in most languages. Some enter the
lexicon and become legit. Others hang on for a while then fade out. Others
never make the grade. Often the changed meanings follow the folk mores,
sociologists tell us. But the phenomenon can be reversed, with mores coming
after the new use for a term is introduced. A Roman politician running
for office would dress in white. Since candidus is the Latin word
for “white,” the man would become a candidatus (dressed
in white). Present day candidates don’t bother much with the color they
dress in. They use the media to do the job for them.
In the fifties, French movie actress Brigitte Bardot starred in a film
called “And God Created Woman.” In it, la Bardot said merde
at least once: the puritanical English subtitle translated it as “damn,”
which was OK for the times. It had the desired effect. Now they would use
“shit” without batting an eyelash.
For propriety sake, quite a few expletives or blasphemous terms used
to be replaced by code words. When the English and the Australians say
bloody, they are not referring to the juice of life, but blaspheming,
because it means “by our Lady.” A similar trick is Americans
saying “Golly” instead of “God,” “fudge”
and “frig” instead of the F-word, which has come out of the closet
and gains in popularity all the time. Remember when typists would exclaim
“sugar!” when they made a mistake? Brazilians use a similar ruse
when they tell somebody vai te fotografar (go get your photograph
taken) for the F-word. Or call a guy filho da măe (a mother’s son),
which of course is a redundancy. Its meaning is approximately that of “son
In real life, Brazilians morph so many innocent words into cusswords
that the late controversial writer Carlos Lacerda used to comment that
“Brazil is the only country in the world where even măe (mother)
is an obscene word.” If you doubt it, dare to shout é a tua măe!
(it’s your mother) when somebody insults you. Shout it and take cover.
A more cautious person would be content with intoning é a tua (it’s
yours) without specifying what it means. Just like in the U.S. comics
a guy asks another “have you lost it?”