Intimacy in Rio de Janeiro as expressed in language

Intimacy in the verbal expression of Rio de Janeiro

By Tom Moore

Pois há menos peixinhos a nadar no mar

Do que os beijinhos que eu darei na sua boca

Dentro dos meus braços os abraços

hão de ser milhões de abraços

Apertado assim, colado assim, calado assim,

Abraços e beijinhos e carinhos sem ter fim…

Chega de saudade, Vinícius de Moraes

Quot linguas calles, tot homines vales.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor

Cada lingua é um mundo diferente, cada lingua é o mundo inteiro

Vilem Flusser, Lingua e realidade

As I have said elsewhere, every nation constructs its identity around certain shared values, creates itself by acknowledging what its peculiar vices and virtues are, by the belief that those vices and virtues are not present (or at least not to such a degree) in other countries. This superlativist view of things finds its perfect poetic expression in the famous Song of Exile by the Brazilian poet Gonçalves Dias (1823–1864), the second strophe of which sings

Nosso céu tem mais estrelas, Our sky has more stars, 
 Nossas várzeas têm mais flores, Our meadows more flowers
 Nossos bosques têm mais vida, Our woods have more life,
 Nossa vida mais amores. Our life has more loves.

It is worth noting that the culmination here is “mais amores”, because fundamental to the Brazilians view of themselves is the idea that Brazilians are warmer, more loving, more friendly, more simpatico, more passionate in love-making, more connected to each other.

(And the necessary correlate of this is that other nations, particularly the United States, are lacking in precisely these areas.)

Brazilian Portuguese, as it is used in Rio de Janeiro, is notably full of expressions of intimacy, of relatedness, and even the way that Cariocas use personal pronouns tends to blur personal boundaries. The Brazilian way of being has shaped the language that is used to express that being, and the language in turn enables expressions of intimacy to be shared in Brazilians’ interpersonal space. Simply the act of speaking this language for a non-native makes possible the performance of a new personality, a new person with new possibilities, in the same way that even the sound of a speaker’s voice alters in shaping vowels and combinations that are not present in another tongue. This notion is found in proverbs and dicta from many countries, dating back at least as far as the saying attributed to the multi-lingual Charles V. Different languages have different expressive possibilities, and the romance languages seem to have a particular gift for romance.[1]

Greetings and farewells (Encontros e despedidas[2])

In the physical sphere, these points of transition for Brazilians are almost always marked by touch, whether handshakes, pats, embraces, kisses. Verbally the Brazilian is also creating and renewing intimacy here as well.

Some styles of greeting:

E aí, mermão, beleza? Tudo bem? Tudo joia?[3]

Here mermão is Carioca for meu irmão, my brother. This may be used for one who is an acquaintance, a friend whose name you can’t recall at the moment, or simply a stranger on the street. Cris Dias tells us that alternatives here are maluco, or figura for a male; cara (lit. face, fig. guy), is also possible. Two women greeting each other may use

“querida”, “linda”, “menina” (dear, pretty, little girl).[4] The feminine form of mermão does exist (mermã), but it is much less commonly used. A child or adolescent who addresses a person of their parent’s generation who is a stranger will most likely greet them as tio, tia (uncle, aunt). The assumption in Rio is that life is beautiful (beleza), that things are going well (bem), that life is joy (joia) (though it is possible to greet someone with the neutral como vai? (how’s it going?)

Some styles of leave-taking:

A farewell, if not in person (i.e. on the phone, by instant messaging, by mail or email) will almost always include an expression of intention to see the friend again soon (até mais, até ja, até logo, see you soon, see you again right away, see you soon), an expression of the corporal affection that would be non-verbal in person (um beijo, beijos, beijinhos, mil beijos, um abraço, abração, a kiss, kisses, little kisses, a thousand kisses, a hug, a big hug), and finally tchau (borrowed from the Italian, and unlike the practice in Italy, used only in farewell, not in greeting). The verbal expression is gender-marked in the same way as the physical affection, so that men will hug men (abração), but not kiss,

women will kiss women, and men will kiss women.

Terms of endearment

The carioca has a wide range of possibilities in choosing to express relationship with another carioca. In addition to the uncles, aunts, and brothers mentioned above, the city is full of potential children, as it is common for a friend, or even a stranger, to address another as “minha filha”, “meu filho” (my daughter, my son).[5] This is

independent of age as well: it is quite possible for a daughter to address her mother this way. It is usually used in the context of giving advice, talking seriously about something, admonishing (olha, vou te contar, quero lhe dizer, look, let me tell you, I want to tell you[6]). Another very common endearment is nega, nego, neguinha, neguinho (black, blackie), which, perhaps surprisingly to United States ears, is independent of skin color. It is most commonly used with the possessive (e.g. minha nega), as it is found in the title of the famous samba by Paulinho da Viola (Coisas do mundo, minha nega “The world is like that, honey”). Here the force of the endearment is something like “honey, sweetie” in English, and unlike the previous endearment, is never used in a scolding or reproving way.

The range of expressions used to express affection for the opposite sex, whether in the context of a love relationship or not, is almost infinite, and almost always focusing on the attractiveness and desirability of the person being addressed. Here, of course, there is the possibility of overstepping the line, expressing too much intimacy, but that line is at a different place than in American culture. The most commonly used expression is gata, gato, gatinha, gatinho, gatão (all forms of “cat”), used to mean someone who is attractive (in English, a “babe’ (women) or a “hunk” (men)). Gata, gato are unmarked as far as age is concerned; gatinha (the diminutive form) is generally used for adolescent girls in the third person, but as term of endearment it can be used for older women as well. Gatinho seems to be almost as common as the feminine form. Gatão is fairly common (there is a famous comic strip called Gatao de meia-idade, “Middle-aged hunk”). Also frequent are the various forms of lindo/a, bonito/a (handsome, pretty), and also gostoso/a (literally, tasty, but in its figurative use so sexual that it can only be used with great care; in other words, something that might lead to a slap in the face for the male who used it unwisely).

Diminutives and augmentatives

The use of the diminutive forms (-inho,inha) is pervasive in Brazilian Portuguese, almost always with an affectionate and familiar tone. They can be used to modify seemingly unexpected (to American ears) nouns and adjectives, to give the conversation a more homey, intimate feeling (e.g. leve, levinha “light, nice and light”, cheirosinha “nice and fragrant”. They are ubiquitous with names (not so different from what obtains in the US, of course) as a way to create intimacy. One notable difference in names, in addition to this, is in fact the use of the first name of the addressee even in situations demanding respect (e.g. the President of Brazil is Fernando Henrique or Lula in public discourse, not Cardoso or Silva), in addition to the perhaps more understandable use of the first name for musical figures or sports icons (Caetano, Chico, Ronaldinho, Ronaldinho Gaucho). Almost anything can receive the diminutive treatment (um chopp, um choppinho, a draft beer, the latter not being a small draft, but a “nice beer”), and for many things in Brazilian life, the diminutive form has become the standard (um cafezinho, a little coffee, though here the cup really is small; uma caipirinha, a potent drink of cachaça and lime juice, named for the caipira or backwoodsman, here the diminutive not for it size but the “friendly” quality of the potion; um chorinho, a frequent version of the name of the choro, a form of Brazilian popular music.)

The use of the augmentative can also express intimacy, though here sometimes mixed with a certain respect. The musician who plays chorinho, if he is a master of his trade, is a chorão (though literally this would be a “big crybaby”). A man can be lindão, gatão, even gostosão, and as one might expect, these augmentatives are more frequent in for the male than for the female. In Brazil the Godfather from the movie series did not become padrinho (a diminutive form for the relationship denoted by godfather in English, and hence connoting familiarity, friendliness) but rather O Poderoso Chefão (“the Powerful Big Boss”).

Membership and belonging

The cordial Brazilian is far more likely to define himself in terms of relationship to a social group or groups than the individualistic and often isolated American. A Carioca can be a member of a torcida (a group of fans for a particular team; for someone to be part of the torcida do Flamengo means that they share some trait with the multitude); root for or march with a samba school or bloco; and almost every carioca has a turma, a “gang” of fellow students or just colleagues or friends.

Colloquial Portuguese tends to use an impersonal third person form in which the referent can be vague. This is a gente (lit. “the people”), where the implicit meaning is something between “me”, “we”, “the gang”. For example, a website may say fale com a gente “talk with us”, or a common phrase refers to gente como a gente “people like us”. It is certainly true that who “we” is can be open to interpretation and negotiation. But for a gente this seems to be even more the case. The third person equivalent is as pessoas literally “the people” but colloquially “they”, and again the referent is not quite as demonstrative as eles or elas (which, etymologically speaking, come from the forms pointing out “those over there” in Latin. The whole effect is blur who is in and who is out, so that the boundaries are more permeable, with less of a clear distinction between “me” and “you” or “us” and “them”. Perhaps it is not so surprising that the motto on the website for the Brazilian federal government is um país para todos, “a country for all”.

Tropical heat

Finally, and perhaps entering on treacherous ground here, the level and nature of sexual and sexualized banter among homosocial and heterosocial groups is notably higher than is usually the case in North American culture, another facet of Carioca society and language that tends to create and express a greater level of intimacy. Sexual metaphors are quite common in normal (if not in formal) discourse. Tesão is properly used for sexual tension (me da tesão, “it turns me on”), but can be used by extension for almost anything that is exciting — music, clothes, and so forth. Sacanagem (lit., illicit or non-standard sexual behavior) was until fairly recent sexual enough that it was shocking for polite conversation; now the metaphorical meaning (something that is offensive, immoral and so forth has come to dominate). Sacanear is to something especially to irritate someone. Some one who is safado/a is lewd; but the addition of the diminutive can make this a positive quality (“she’s lewd, but I mean that in the good sense of the word…). A well-known song lists the qualities of the girlfriend the singer is looking for: bonitinha, cheirosinha, bem safadinha “pretty, smells nice, very nice and lewd” — the last is almost impossible to translate into English. For the same reason the various parts of the body which are unmentionable in polite conversation are often softened by diminutives, losing some of their taboo quality and power, and gaining intimacy.

To paraphrase Paulo Rónai, the translator is one who interprets one culture to another; and to follow Vilem Flusser, quoted at the top, each language is a different world, an entire world. I hope that the observations above give a small window into an aspect of the different world that is Brazilian Portuguese.

[1] See Ruy Vasconcelos de Carvalho, Pequena conversa sobre tom e tradução, Espéculo, no. 21, Julio-octubre 2002 Año VIII,, accessed April 16, 2004.

[2] The title of a famous LP by the singer and composer Milton Nascimento.

[3] “Se é um papo entre dois homens os velhos truques de chamar o outro de “maluco”, “mermão”, “figura” e outros adjetivos do tipo sempre cai bem”., entry of April 14, 2004. Acessed April 16, 2004.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] For example, the caller in the joke who says to his friend’s secretary “Olha, minha filha, não leve a mal…” (look, dear, don’t take this the wrong way…).

[6] An example where an actual daughter is reporting her father’s speech, using several of these in combination with minha filha (Olha minha filha, eu só quero te dizer…)can be found in the interview with Miss Brasil 2002, Michelle Siqueira at Accessed April 16, 2004.