Brazilian words in English

by Liz Walter
With the football World Cup in Brazil about to kick off, this blog looks at Portuguese, the language of Brazil, and its influence on English.

The Portuguese loanwords we have in English tend to be for fairly rare items. Probably because the Portuguese were such great explorers, they include several names of living creatures, for example piranha, cobra, flamingo, macaw and plants such as jacaranda (a tropical tree with large, blue flowers) and manioc (a plant grown for its edible roots).

Other English words of Portuguese origin include albino (a person with white skin and hair and pink eyes), sargasso (a large mass of floating plants in the sea), molasses (a dark syrup) and tapioca (a grain used to make a milk dessert remembered with horror by most British people over the age of fifty). Another surprising addition to this list is the word fetish, which originally came from a Portuguese word meaning ‘false’.

Interestingly, there is also a small group of words which have come into English as a result of Portuguese influence in India. Examples are amah (a female servant), ayah (a children’s nursemaid) and mandarin (now used mainly as a critical term for a government official).

Many people associate Brazil with carnivals and dancing, and this is one area of language that has come into English, with words for dances such as samba, lambada, carioca, and bossa nova. The word maracas (instruments filled with seeds or something similar and shaken to produce a rhythm) is also Portuguese in origin.

Nowadays, the Brazilian word favela, meaning a slum or shanty-town, is well-known in English from news reports. On a more positive note, the activity of capoeira, a Brazilian form of martial art that combines dance and acrobatics, including a lot of kicking and spinning, has become popular all over the world.

Another Brazilian word now widely known in English-speaking countries is caipirinha, a cocktail made from cachaça (an alcoholic substance made from sugar cane), sugar and lime. And although not yet as popular as some other cuisines, it is possible in most UK cities to have a lunch of  feijoada (a stew of beans and meat) and arroz doce (a rice and milk dessert).

In the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, the word vuvuzela (a type of loud horn) suddenly became known worldwide. It remains to be seen whether the official instrument of this World Cup, the caxirola, will catch on in the same way. At the time of writing, it has actually been banned from World Cup matches, so probably not! At least that way, you should be able to enjoy o jogo bonito (the beautiful game) in peace!

14 thoughts on “Brazilian words in English

  1. Wow! Great to read a post like this one which focus on Brazilian culture, especially in Portuguese. I missed the word FEIJOADA (one of the most known Brazilian foods) in this post. However, I congratulate you for have written it.

  2. Liz Walter

    Thanks so much, UnDefined! Don’t worry – feijoada is there, at the end of the penultimate paragraph.


    Another famous Brazilian food term which is sometimes used in English is “churrasco”, a Brazilian barbecue. It’s pronounced /shoe-RASS-koo/. The best of all is “rodízio de churrasco” (more correctly “rodízio de carnes” as other meats are usually included) where the waiters come round with different meats until you can’t eat any more (there are usually YES/NO disks on the tables) or until you burst. There is one in the Five Ways area of Birmingham, England.

  4. Pingback: Brazil World Cup: Learning the basics | Carol's Adventures in Translation

  5. John Whitlam

    Tapioca is actually made from manioc, the root vegetable you mentioned earlier in the post which is used in countless different ways in Brazilian cooking. Having been through the horrors of tapioca from a tin in my British childhood, it took me many years of living in Brazil before I could bring myself to try it again. When I did, I discovered that, prepared properly, it’s delicious.
    The word fetish comes from the Portuguese feitiço, which originally meant false, as you pointed out. “Feitiço” soon came to mean “spell” as in witchcraft (its modern meaning) particularly in Portuguese Africa, where it was taken into French in the form fétiche and then back into Portuguese as fetiche (the modern word for “fetish”).

    1. John Whitlam

      Hi Liz! A Brazilian friend of mine posted the link to your blog on FB and when I saw your name, I couldn’t resist. I hope life has been treating you well over the (many) intervening years!

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