15 Brazilian Expressions That Don't Translate Literally Into English


Ending something with a pizza is not exactly a positive thing in Brazil
Brazil Culture

Brazilians have amazing expressions – and most don’t translate literally into English. We’ve selected a few of our favorite ones, explaining what they mean and their origins. If you don’t find a particular expression, check out our first and second installments on the issue. And of course, feel free to use the comment section to suggest your favorite Brazilian expressions!

“Acabar em pizza”
(To end something with a pizza)
Wrongdoings going unpunished

Back in the 1960s, football club Palmeiras experienced an acute crisis. The team’s board of directors held a meeting to discuss possible solutions but reached no agreement after 14 hours of heated discussion. At the end of the meeting, the executives forgot about their political differences and went to an Italian restaurant to eat pizzas. The next morning, a journalist wrote the following headline: “Crisis in Palmeiras ends with pizzas.”

Like many other expressions, this one had a slightly different meaning when it was first coined. At first, it referred to the Brazilian ability to put differences aside and coexist in harmony. In the early 1990s, however, it acquired a more negative connotation and was associated with politicians’ efforts to accommodate their interests and escape prosecution during investigations.

“O cão chupando manga”
(The dog sucking a mango)
Something/someone hideous

The dog in this expression is not really an animal. In Northeastern Brazil, where this phrase comes from, the word cão (dog) can also refer to the devil. So the expression really means “the devil sucking a mango.”

According to journalist Marcelo Torres, who comes from Bahia, this expression was originally a compliment and used to mean that someone was excellent at something. With time, the expression spread to other regions in Brazil – and lost its original meaning. We get it. Watching the devil sucking a mango can’t be a pretty picture, right?

“Tirar leite de pedra”
(To milk a rock)
Make something out of nothing

As you know, you can’t milk a rock. It means to make something despite unfavorable odds and lack of conditions. This expression comes from an old Portuguese proverb that said: “You can’t get water from rocks.” Brazilians took it to the next level. Because if it’s hard to get water out of a rock, imagine trying to milk it.

“Descascar abacaxi”
(To peel a pineapple)
To solve a big problem

Today, it is quite easy to peel a pineapple. Heck, you buy them pre-sliced. But back in the day, this fruit was known for being difficult to eat. Removing the pineapple’s thorns and skin was quite a challenge.

“Nem que a vaca tussa”
(Not even if the cow coughs)
It won’t happen

The original expression is “Not even if the cow coughs and the bull sneezes.” It means that something won’t materialize even if an extraordinary event, such as a cow coughing, happens. According to the Brazilian Guide for the Curious, however, that expression makes no sense. The guide cites a veterinarian who explains that bovines cough and sneeze quite frequently. But you get the point.

“Mentira tem perna curta”
(A lie has short legs)
People find out soon when you’re lying

According to Brazilian writer Mário Prata, this expression comes from 19th century Paris. French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was considered a very skilled liar. Apparently, his lying skills were only matched by his artistic talent. Lautrec also had a physical disability, which made his legs shorter than usual.

There is an alternative interpretation of the expression. If a lie has short legs, it can’t travel much before you catch up to it.

“Pular a cerca”
(To jump over the fence)
To cheat on your spouse

It is nearly impossible to trace the origins of this expressions since it has been used for centuries. The term, however, is pretty clear in describing an act performed in hiding. Instead of coming in through the front gate, a lover would jump over the fence.

During the colonial period, the original expression included a pun: “Não se deve pular a cerca, principalmente quando o marido estiver à cerca,” or: “You shouldn’t jump over the fence, especially if the husband is nearby.”

“Cara de Pau”
(To have a wooden face)
Having a lot of nerve

It is hard to determine the origins of this ancient expression. Some Brazilian linguists suggest that it comes from the carrancas, wooden-faced monsters placed in front of ships to scare bad spirits. This would have been the first thing people saw when a ship was approaching. Some sailors, then, became known as “the wooden faces.” Since they are associated with bragging, telling lies, and having less than stellar behavior, having a “wooden face” became synonymous with having those characters flaws.

cara de pau brazilian expressions

“Nascer com a bunda virada para a lua”
(Being born with the butt towards the moon)
Being a lucky person

In normal childbirths, the head of the baby is the first thing coming out of the womb. Sometimes, however, the baby isn’t placed in the right position. In approximately 3 percent of births, the bottom of the baby comes first – which increases the chances of death for the baby. This expression refers to that kind of delivery. If you’re born that way and make it, you’re a lucky person.

“Pão duro”
(Hard bread)
Stingy person

This expression comes from a 20th-century play about a homeless guy who supposedly lived in Rio de Janeiro during the 1920s. He used to beg on the streets – even for a piece of hard bread. When he died, the story goes, it became known that he had accumulated a lot of wealth – having bank accounts and real estate.

“Ter o rei na barriga”
(To have the king in your belly)
To be pretentious

The term comes from the Portuguese monarchy. When a queen became pregnant, she was treated with extra care. After all, she was carrying the successor to the throne. It was common that the pregnant queen started to see herself as above anyone else – thus being perceived as arrogant and pretentious.

“Viajar na maionese”
(Traveling in the mayonnaise)
Talking nonsense

According to the Brazilian Guide for the Curious, this expression was first coined during the 1970s in a few Rio de Janeiro prisons. This theory states that inmates often created new slang, and decided that traveling in the mayonnaise would mean committing a faux pas or talking nonsense.

A few years ago on Facebook, a movie critic published that the expression comes from a case of food poisoning. After eating an expired jar of mayonnaise, a group of people began to hallucinate. Well, we say that whoever came up with that theory probably traveled in the mayonnaise.

(Staging the Nativity scene)
To do something ridiculous

A presépio is the representation of the birth of Jesus. The word presepada, however, has the negative meaning of pulling a ridiculous, exhibitionist act. As a matter of fact, the term comes indeed from the Nativity scene. According to Brazilian etymologist Silveira Bueno, the meaning comes from bad performances delivered by actors who have staged the scene.

“Estar com a corda no pescoço”
(To have the rope around your neck)
To face a dire situation

This phrase refers to dire financial situations when ruin is imminent. It’s like having a rope around your neck – meaning that the ultimate punishment is close.

“A cobra vai fumar”
(The snake will smoke)
An extraordinary thing will happen

Many foreigners don’t know this, but Brazil fought in World War II. The Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) fought in Italy between 1944 and 1945. This special war force had a snake smoking a pipe as its mascot. The choice was a response to a journalist, who had previously said that it would be easier for a snake to smoke than for Brazil to take part in the war.

He could have also said that Brazil wouldn’t enter the conflict “even if a cow coughs.”