“Madam, you look exquisite.” “How dare you, Sir?” And with that she slapped him.

Monday, November 4, 2013, 17:30

Does the situation in the title seem an unlikely scenario? Well, let me explain why it might not be so strange in Portugal.


Exquisite in English and 'esquisito' in Portuguese both mean something out of the ordinary but, whereas in English exquisite means unusually beautiful, in Portuguese it means peculiar, strange, weird even. Lady Gaga's meat dress might be described as 'esquisito'.

So if you wish to pay a lady a compliment in Portuguese avoid the word 'esquisito'. It's what linguists often call a false friend; a word that you think you know because it seems so like a word in your own language but if you don't take care it will let you down badly.

To read the rest of the story, click here


One of the most extraordinary things you notice when arriving in Portugal in winter is the number of people who are 'constipado'.

"Good Lord," you think to yourself, "I know there are fewer vegetables around in winter but the market stalls still seem to have lots of good things for sale. Why on earth aren't they eating them?"

Then you begin to feel pretty surprised at the openness with which the Portuguese talk about their alimentary canal problems. After all we in the UK tend to keep rather quiet about our need for Senokot tablets.

Well 'constipado' is another churlish word which leads you astray. There is definitely a blockage in the body but for the Portuguese it's at the other end from the one we think of. In Portuguese the blockage is in the nose and a 'constipação' is a cold. 'Estou constipado/a' means 'I've got a cold.'


Recently my friend, Dona Ana, a lady now getting on in years, told me she had been 'internada'.

First you may wonder what a respectable lady like Dona Ana can have been doing to bring the full force of the law down on her head and to be locked away without trial.  Then, on second thoughts, you may find yourself saying, "Poor thing! She's probably got Alzheimer's. That's what happens when you get old. A pity she's been sent to a lunatic asylum, though."

Well you may be surprised to hear that Dona Ana, despite being in her late 80s, is as sharp as ever she was. She's clever, informative, interested in life and most certainly hasn't been anywhere near a prison or a psychiatric ward.

However, Dona Ana's health hasn't been good recently. In the past she has had a heart bypass and a pace maker and, as she grows older, her health is becoming more fragile so recently she has been hospitalised. 'Internado' indicates a stay in hospital.

Vulgar and Ordinary

It is not only false friends in language that can let you down. Different cultures can cause problems too. In the next example, the Catholic culture of Portugal and the Protestant culture of England come into conflict and the final straw is the false linguistic friend at the end.

When I was an English assistant at Lisbon university, the teachers of the first year of students studying English set as an end of year essay the topic, 'A person I will never forget.' One of my students chose to write about her mother and began with the most stunning opening sentence I have ever read.

'My mother is neither a virgin nor a saint, she is just a vulgar woman."

For British people, it is axiomatic that your mother is not a virgin. But of course that is not what my student meant. It would almost certainly not occur to English people to compare our mothers with Mary the mother of Christ but if by some chance it did, we would, I think, always include her name; the Virgin Mary.

Unfortunately for the poor student, her error was compounded by the use of the false friend 'vulgar'. 'Vulgar' in Portuguese comes from the Latin word for the people and my student wished to imply that there was nothing special about her mother; she was one of the people, she was ordinary. In English we have snobbishly assumed that being of the people is undesirable. We wish to rise above the crowd so vulgar is badly behaved, ill-spoken and so on.

Unfortunately for us, the tables are turned when we are speaking Portuguese. Ordinary is just fine in English but English people would be unwise to tell their Portuguese friends that their mothers were 'ordinárias'. The Portuguese would think them seriously rude, most unfilial. 'Ordinário' in Portuguese means what we think of when we use the word 'vulgar'!

It's all very confusing isn't it?

Have you made any terrible mistakes in Portuguese? Are you brave enough to tell us?

Or if you are Portuguese, can you think of any embarrassing mistakes in English that you are prepared to tell us about?




peter wrote:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013, 08:50
Yes, I've made loads of mistakes but not speaking the language, I have no idea what they are..although I have , on occasion, amused folks with my poor attempts at being multilingual...
Margaret wrote:
Wednesday, May 3, 2017, 12:38
Never mind the mistakes! The important thing is to try. The Portuguese are a kindly tolerant people. They just love you for making an effort.
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