[sˈɐ̃.tu .du. pˈaw.ˈo.kʊ] Santo do pau oco literally means “hollow saint.” It’s used to describe someone who seems to be good, but is actually a hypocritical liar
Origins of the Expression
The most accepted origin for this expression relates to gold smuggling.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Brazil experienced a boom in gold and diamond extraction. At the time, the Portuguese Crown had established a tax called the Quinto (a fifth), which took 20 percent of the revenue from minerals extracted in the colony.
To avoid losing part of their fortune, gold and diamond merchants from the 17th and 18th centuries used hollow statues of saints to hide their minerals from tax auditors of the crown. Their ships were marked as belonging to art vendors instead.
The smugglers mixed their statues filled with gold dust or diamonds with regular statues. To later identify the hollow saints without needing to smash them all, the smugglers used to leave clues for themselves, such as saints with six fingers, or crossed eyes. The clue was typically some sort of defect, small enough for them to be the only ones who would notice.
Santo do pau oco (or “hollow saint,” if you will) means someone who is a saint only in appearance, but with no actual holy characteristics.
There is also another possible origin for the phrase. Santo do pau oco might be a modification of an old Portuguese expression, santo de pau carunchoso – literally, “a saint whose wood was eaten by termites.” The Portuguese expression has a similar meaning: a saint made from rotten wood, and thus a hypocrite.Chances are that both explanations are correct. Due to the frequently of gold smuggling, Brazilian settlers likely modified an already-existing expression.
Chances are that both explanations are correct. Due to the frequently of gold smuggling, Brazilian settlers likely modified an already-existing expression.