How do you say … in English?

by José Roberto A. Igreja

Despite the fact that English teachers have long been used to the question above, it can still cause even the most seasoned ones to be baffled sometimes. As a matter of fact, a host of unexpected brazilian colloquial expressions can be put forward by that question: mexer os pauzinhos; um mar de rosas; fazer um doc; um erro n√£o conserta o outro; pau-pra-toda-obra; cheque pr√©-datado; le√£o-de-ch√°cara; entrar no esquema; tomar pau na escola; pegar o jeito; propina; ral√©; por debaixo do pano; bambamb√£; ganhar dinheiro a rodo; fazer vista grossa; rua sem sa√≠da; sei l√° ! ; * ( the list is endless …)

Getting to grips with expressions like the ones above is usually the next step for someone learning English once all grammatical structures and the vocabulary for everyday communication have been mastered. Knowing how to apply them properly in English certainly guarantees a more native-like fluency and therefore, it goes without saying that, our endeavor as resourceful teachers to keep up-to-date with vocabulary and expressions is virtually endless. However, a teacher should be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to live up to some of his students¬ī unrealistic expectations who believe teachers are walking dictionaries and will always have the answer for every question and doubt on the tip of their tongues. When dealing with languages one should bear in mind that sometimes a certain word or expression may be unique in a language and there may not be a good counterpart for it in another language. Take the portuguese word ‚Äúsaudade‚ÄĚ for example!

Two different cultures = two different ways of expressing oneself …

Many students believe, when they first start out to learn the language, that virtually every expression or vocabulary word in Portuguese (be it colloquial or not) can be converted literally into English in the blink of an eye. It should perhaps be important to make students aware of the fact that while many expressions in Portuguese have indeed a literal equivalent in English, ‚Äúword by word translation‚ÄĚ is not always a possibility. Let¬īs take a look at the chart below where both situations are presented:

Portuguese ‚Äď English (Literal Equivalents)

Arrega√ßar as mangas – Roll up one¬īs sleeves

Sem sombra de d√ļvida – Without a shadow of a doubt

Matar o tempo – Kill time

Por um fim em – Put an end to

Na ponta da l√≠ngua ‚Äď On the tip of one¬īs tongue

A hora do rush – The rush hour

Saber de cor(ação) РKnow by heart

Portuguese ‚Äď English (Special forms)

Vender que nem √°gua – Sell like hot cakes

Matar-se de trabalhar – Work one¬īs fingers to the bone

Morrer de rir – Laugh one¬īs head off

Dormir como uma pedra – Sleep like a log

Dar uma gelada em alguém РGive someone the cold shoulder

Desmancha prazeres – Wet blanket / Killjoy

Dar a volta por cima – Bounce back

Dar a carta branca a alguém РGive someone a free hand

Ele √© a cara do pai ! – He¬īs the spitting image of his father !

Le√£o-de-ch√°cara – Bouncer

Pegar alguém em flagrante РCatch someone red-handed

N√£o pregar o olho – Not sleep a wink

Students may find a little strange at first that the corresponding expression to um “mar de rosas” in English is “a bed of roses”, since the word ‚Äúbed‚ÄĚ has nothing to do with ‚Äúmar‚ÄĚ or that the equivalent expression to “o cheque voltou” in English is “the check bounced” (and not ‚Äúreturned‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúcame back‚ÄĚ!) The point again here is: literal translation does not always work out! It is one of our jobs as English teachers to help our students get over the ‚Äúword-by-word translation syndrome‚ÄĚ and jokingly remind them that the sentence “the cow went to the swamp” does not convey the same meaning as the well-known brazilian expression “a vaca foi para o brejo!”.

Which one? – Making the right choice

Another important aspect that should be considered and that we should often remind our students of is that one single word or expression in Portuguese can correspond to two or more words or expressions in English depending on what we are talking about, and that failing to determine the appropriate context can often lead to mistakes. If a student asks, for example , ‚ÄúHow do you say “arm√°rio” in English ?‚ÄĚ, before answering that question, perhaps it would be better to ask him what kind of “arm√°rio” he has in mind. Is he thinking of the one found in locker rooms, railway stations and airports or the one in a kitchen? Or does he perhaps mean the one in his bedroom where he hangs up his clothes? That would certainly help since while in Portuguese the word ‚Äúarm√°rio‚ÄĚ is just one for all the contexts described above, the same is not true in English. And what if a student comes up with an expression such as fio dental? (and they often do!) Wouldn¬īt it be a good opportunity to introduce the appropriate vocabulary choice for both “fios dentais”? I mean, the one for flossing the teeth (dental floss) and the one some women generously wear to the beach (g-string bikini)?

Some other words in Portuguese that are likely to generate misunderstandings and confusion if the context is not properly defined are presented below:

Casamento – wedding or marriage?

Noivo Рfiancé or groom?

Noiva Рfiancée or bride?

Padrinho – godfather or best man?

Madrinha – godmother or maid of honor?

Aborto – abortion or miscarriage?

Receita – recipe , prescription or revenue?

Relógio Рwatch or clock?

Escada – stairs or ladder?

The ever present opportunity for getting ahead …

Whether you are a teacher or a student (and teachers are eternal students, for teaching is a two-way street ) you should not overlook the opportunity that arises for getting ahead and treading on new ground, whenever the question “How do you say ‚Ķ‚Ķ in English?” comes up.

So many crucial teaching moments are prompted by that question that it can only be regarded as welcome. If our ultimate goal as teachers is to get our students to communicate efficiently in the target language, helping them to get to grips with double meanings, read between the lines, expand their vocabulary and sound as natural as possible, then what can we ask for more than the teaching opportunities (and learning opportunities as well!) that come along with that good and old question?

* You can find the equivalent expressions in English in context to all these Brazilian colloquialisms and many more in the book
How do you say ‚Ķ‚Ķ. in English? – Express√Ķes coloquiais e perguntas inusitadas para quem estuda ou ensina ingl√™s! Disal Editora 2005

Obs: Article originally published in New Routes magazine # 25

The author

Jos√© Roberto A. Igreja¬†has a BA in English and Literature from PUC/SP. He is the author of¬†Ingl√™s Fluente em 30 Li√ß√Ķes;¬†Fale tudo em Ingl√™s nos Neg√≥cios!;¬†Como se diz em ingl√™s?;¬†How do you say … in English?;¬†Say it all in Brazilian Portuguese!;¬†Fale Tudo em Ingl√™s!;¬†Fale Tudo em Ingl√™s!- Livro de Atividades;¬†Fale tudo em Ingl√™s em Viagens!;¬†Falsos Cognatos – Looks can be deceiving!¬†and¬†False Friends. He¬īs also the co-author of¬†Fluent Business English;¬†English for Job interviews!;¬†Fale Ingl√™s como um Americano;¬†Phrasal Verbs;¬†Essential Phrasal Verbs;¬†American Idioms!¬†and¬†Essential American Idioms,¬†all published by Disal Editora. E-mail:¬†

Refer√™ncia: ‚ÄúHow do you say … in English?‚ÄĚ – Jos√© Roberto A. Igreja, Disal Editora.¬†Clique aqui¬†para ler a resenha.