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12 Essential Untranslatable Portuguese Words

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Not everything can be translated. The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel tells of a time when all humans stopped speaking the same language to drown in the confusion of different idioms. The conflicts have spread throughout humankind, which has been dissolved into different tribes.

Indeed, communication is full of perils. Speech is the root of every possible human bond and results in building or destroying bridges. Normally, when a message fails to be transmitted, the consequences aren’t good.

This effort to translate is hard enough in daily matters. But what about the untranslatable Portuguese words and those of other languages?

The benefits of learning untranslatable Portuguese words may not be obvious at first sight, but they exist. For one, it’s a good way to learn more about the culture of the target country and to understand more about the native speakers’ mindset.

That’s why you’re about to grow as a student with the help of a brand-new list of untranslatable Portuguese words from PortuguesePod101!

Disclaimer

The following words will be presented with a literal translation, which could also be properly called an approximate meaning. Because these are Portuguese words with no English equivalent, right? But we’ll do our best to communicate the actual meaning after the literal translation to make it as precise as possible.

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Table of Contents

  1. Saudade
  2. Fado
  3. Gostosa
  4. Tapioca
  5. Oca
  6. Xodó
  7. Desbundar
  8. Cafuné
  9. Ouvido e orelha
  10. Anteontem
  11. Cadê
  12. Caprichar
  13. How PortuguesePod101 Can Help You Learn More Untranslatable Words in Portuguese

1. Saudade

Best Ways to Learn

Literal Translation:

There isn’t one.

Meaning:

Feelings of nostalgia and longing for something, someone, or some situation. Normally, these are melancholy feelings, but can also carry joyful undertones.

Example Situations:

To long for a dead relative; missing a childhood object; to miss an ex-partner (or the feelings you felt toward them); to yearn to go back in time to a situation.

Usage in a Sentence:

  • Sinto saudade dela.
    “I miss her.”
  • Que saudades da casa da minha infância…
    “Oh, how I long for the house of my childhood…”

When it comes to words often used together with this term, people usually “have” saudade or “feel” saudade.

The feeling can also be expressed as a lament with the help of que: Que saudade da casa da minha infância…

Additional Notes:

Some people see this as one of the most beautiful untranslatable Portuguese words. The word is largely employed in lyrical context, which is probably the best context to learn the many ways it can be used.

Saudade ranges from modern Brazilian music from the end of the 1950s (João Gilberto’s Chega de Saudade album) back to the poems of Luís Vaz de Camões (Nascerão Saudades Do Meu Bem, for instance) in the 17th century. These were some of the most important contributions in shaping the pillars of the popular Portuguese idiom that we know today.

Actually, saudade has been present in Portuguese poetry since it began. The medieval cantigas de amigo (“friend songs,” or romantic chivalry lyrics) already used the word to describe the feeling of maidens left behind by their knights to die in battles.

So, if you search well enough, you may draw the conclusion that this is not only a very old and beautiful word, but also one of the most popular untranslatable words in Portuguese.

2. Fado

José Malhoa’s painting “Fado” (1910) depicts a working class Portuguese couple in a moment of artistic contemplation.

Literal Translation:

“Fate”

Meaning:

Besides being a less popular translation for “fate,” fado is the name of a popular melancholic Portuguese music genre.

Example Situation:

The most common use of fado is in fado lyrics, such as Tudo isto é fado by poet Aníbal Nazaré, and it was made famous by the voice of Portuguese singer Amália Rodrigues:

Almas vencidas/Noites perdidas/Sombras bizarras(…)/Amor ciúme/Cinzas e lume/Dor e pecado/Tudo isto existe/Tudo isto é triste/Tudo isto é fado(… )

“Beaten souls/Lost nights/Bizarre shadows(…)/Love jealousy/Cinders and lights/Pain and sin/All this exists/All this is sad/All this is fado(…)”

Usage in a Sentence:

Fado can be used with and without musical context, though the latter is much less common.
When the word is used in lyrics, it can depict both the song genre and fate, depending on the situation.

Additional Notes:

Exposure to fado singers’ and instrumentalists’ works will not only lead you to find popular poetry and more interesting untranslatable Portuguese idioms. It will also present to you the unique universe of Moorish and European musical expression and instruments, blended into Portugal’s modern musical pride.

Also, you’ll certainly find some of the most beautiful Portuguese words and phrases we need in English.

3. Gostosa

Literal Translation:

“Tasty”

Meaning:

To use gostosa is similar to using “hot” to describe an attractive woman. It can also be used for men, adapted to gostoso.

Example Situation:

Gostosa is an adjective and one of the funny untranslatable Portuguese words on this list. But as you may have imagined, to call someone “tasty” can be perceived as very vulgar by the person receiving the compliment.

An example situation for the appropriate use of this word would be in a context of informality and intimacy. It’s sexy talk. For instance, if used during flirting, gostosa normally would not be employed to establish first impressions—don’t be a jerk.

Usage in a Sentence:

  • Já te disseram que você é bem gostosa?
    “Did someone ever tell you that you’re very hot?”

4. Tapioca

Bubble Tea with Tapioca Balls

Literal Translation:

There isn’t one.

Meaning:

It’s a type of edible flour made of manioc, but the word is normally used to describe a fine pancake recipe prepared with this flour and various types of fillings.

Example Situation:

Tapioca is a noun, which means it can be qualified by adjectives. The most common ones for an interested gourmand would be doce or salgado (“sweet” or “salted”), since these are the flavors offered when ordering one.

Despite the choice of fillings, there aren’t many ways to prepare tapioca: mostly, it’s fried (frita) in a pan without oil. But you might find other ways to serve it, since it’s growingly incorporated into other plates and candies. For instance: dadinho de tapioca (“little tapioca dice” ) or sorvete de tapioca (“tapioca ice cream”).

Usage in a Sentence:

  • Esta tapioca com manteiga está deliciosa, mas prefiro com recheio doce.
    “This buttered tapioca is delicious, but I’d rather eat one with a sweet filling.”

Additional Notes:

This isn’t one of the hard Portuguese words to learn or use. Indeed, rather than learning this example of untranslatable Brazilian Portuguese words, you’re probably better off tasting a sample of tapioca! To savor it is also untranslatable…

This Brazilian delicacy is a native dish and very popular in the Northern and Northeastern regions of the country. In the time of colonization, it was fed to the slaves and also served as food for settlers. Presently, it’s a “trendy” option for snacks and sandwiches among gym enthusiasts, since it can be prepared as a very thin yet consistent and energetic pancake, and filled with “healthy” ingredients.

5. Oca

A Photo of the Oca Building by Niemeyer

Niemeyer’s Oca building is inspired by primordial native constructions

Literal Translation:

There isn’t one.

Meaning:

An indigenous dwelling made out of wood and vegetable fibers—typically found in Brazil.

Don’t confuse this word with the Portuguese translation for “hollow,” which is pronounced “oh-kah.” The word in question here should be pronounced with an “open o” (like in the word “rock”).

Example Situation:

Consisting of three letters, this is probably one of the least hard Portuguese words to learn from this list. It’s normally employed in native contexts.

Usage in a Sentence:

The word is typically used to describe indigenous houses, and not in connotative manners. A group of ocas can be called an aldeia.

Additional Notes:

The format of an oca is rounded and it can vary in size. To imagine one, you just need to picture a coconut sunken halfway into the ground.

The form of the oca has served as inspiration for modern architectural structures in Brazil. The most famous one is Oscar Niemeyer’s Oca in the Ibirapuera Park, in São Paulo. It’s a museum for small- to medium-sized expositions.

6. Xodó

Literal Translation:

There isn’t one.

Meaning:

The dearest one; the loved one

Example Situation:

Xodó can be used to refer to different types of people for whom the speaker feels tenderness. Relatives, especially children, can be xodós. For example, a grandson can be a grandmother’s xodó, and vice-versa. Pets, dear objects, and hobbies can be xodós as well.

Finally, this word can also be applied in a dating context as a synonym for a valentine or a dear one.

Usage in a Sentence:

Xodó is a popular example of untranslatable words in Portuguese vocabulary. It should be used in informal register.

An example of the expression’s usage in a dating context is Dominguinhos’ song Xodó, also interpreted by Luiz Gonzaga. This forró singer is among Brazil’s most famous musicians of all time. The chorus of the tune is as follows:

  • Eu só quero um amor/Que acabe o meu sofrer/Um xodó pra mim/Do meu jeito assim/Que alegre o meu viver
    “All I want is a valentine/That will end my suffering/A valentine for me/Just the way I like it/That will lighten up my living”

The term can also refer to the relationship itself, not the valentine.

Other examples outside of the dating context are:

  • Ele tem um xodó tremendo pelo carro.
    “He is tremendously in love with his car.”
    (Note that the “relationship” meaning is employed in this case, but in a connotative manner.)
  • A garotinha era o xodó do professor de História.
    “The little girl was the dearest of the history teacher.”

7. Desbundar

People Drinking at a Party

Literal Translation:

There isn’t one.

Meaning:

This is one of the most complex untranslatable Portuguese words on this list. Essentially, this verb is equivalent to “dazzle”…but not only that. It also carries behavioral tones that are not encompassed by “dazzle.” For example, desbundar can refer to losing control, becoming inebriated, or taking to deviant sexual behavior.

Finally, to free yourself from social constraints in general can be described as desbundar (the verb) or desbunde (the noun, which is the liberating act itself).

Example Situation:

Someone at a party after their fourth glass of caipirinha is ready to desbundar—if they haven’t already.

Usage in a Sentence:

  • Beatriz desbundou de vez após consumir tanta droga.
    “Beatriz has lost track completely after consuming so many drugs.”
  • O turista desbundou quando viu o Rio Amazonas.
    “The tourist was bedazzled by the sight of the Amazonas River.”

Additional Notes:

Desbundar and desbunde are more examples of why untranslatable Portuguese terms are somewhat hard for foreigners to understand fully, even after they learn the general idea. Foreign speakers lack certain cultural information, which is sometimes hard to get.

We’ve already commented on musical and literary repertoire related to other words. In this case, desbunde (in the sense of liberation or losing track of reality) was popularized in the context of the Brazilian dictatorship of the 1960s. That was when desbunde got this sense among artists who were experimenting with cultural norms, sexual liberation, and aesthetic modernization.

8. Cafuné

Literal Translation:

There isn’t one.

Meaning:

Running your fingers through one’s hair

Example Situation:

Though it may seem like a romantic gesture, a cafuné is a normal form of affection in Brazil among friends and relatives. Though it can certainly be used in a romantic context as well.

Usage in a Sentence:

  • Vem cá me fazer um cafuné.
    “Come here and give me a cuddle.”

9. Ouvido e orelha

A Man Listening to Something

Literal Translation:

“Ear” and…”ear”

Meaning:

This may come across as something odd.

Ouvido stands for the inner part of the ear (the ducts inside the tiny hole of the ear), whereas orelha is the outer part of the ear—its “structure.”

Example Situation:

Typically, when it comes to hearing something or having pain in the ear, the speaker will refer to the ouvido.

When talking about the physical structure of the ear, the part seen by the eyes, the speaker will talk about orelha.

Usage in a Sentence:

  • Vou ao médico, pois estou com dor de ouvido.
    “I’m going to the physician because I feel pain in my ear.”
  • Levei uma bolada na orelha e agora ela está vermelha como um pimentão.
    “They’ve kicked the ball against my ear and now it is red as a pepper.”

Additional Notes:

Someone with large ears is often called orelhas de abano (“fan ears”).

Someone with good hearing skills is considered to have ouvidos de tísico or ouvidos de tuberculoso (both synonyms for “tuberculous ears”).

10. Anteontem

Literal Translation:

“Before yesterday”

Meaning:

It is the day before yesterday.

Example Situation:

Actually, an English speaker can find an equivalent for this word in “ereyesterday.” But since this form is extremely archaic, we consider anteontem to be one of the important untranslatable Portuguese words for new learners.

Anteontem is freely and often used in Portuguese conversations not only in Brazil, but also in Portugal, Angola, Mozambique, and Guiné-Bissau.

Usage in a Sentence:

  • Você deveria ter feito a reserva anteontem…
    “You should have done the reservations the day before yesterday…”
  • Ela assistiu um filme terrível anteontem.
    “She watched a terrible movie the day before yesterday.”
  • Aonde todos foram anteontem?
    “Where did everybody go the day before yesterday?”

Other commonly used verbs that go with anteontem are: comer (“to eat”), tocar (“to play”), jogar (“to play”), and the list goes on.

Additional Notes:

Fun fact: This word is an example of linguistic bricolage in Portuguese. It’s the exact combination of antes (“before” ) and ontem (“yesterday”).

11. Cadê

Literal Translation:

“Where is”

Meaning:

This is a subtle example of Brazillian Portuguese words you can’t translate into English. You most certainly can ask where something is in English. But can you do it in one word? Cadê, also known as quede or quedê, is the contraction of “where is” (onde está) in one word—even though onde está doesn’t sound anything close to cadê.

Example Situation:

If you’ve lost something or want to know where someone is, cadê is the word of choice.

Fun fact: In the late 1990s, Cadê was the name of a Brazilian web search engine, similar to Google.

Usage in a Sentence:

  • Cadê o chinelo?
    “Where is the flip flop [sandal]?”
  • Cadê Tereza?
    “Where is Tereza?”

Additional Notes:

Actually, quede is the contraction of que é de…? which is an archaic way of asking for something’s whereabouts. Curiously enough, que é de is the exact equivalent to “what became of…?”

Cadê or quedê are preferable to quede, which can also refer to a sports shoe or a golf caddie. Or you can engage in truly untranslatable Portuguese phrases asking where the caddie is: quede o quede?

12. Caprichar

Hot Dog with Mustard

Literal Translation:

“To make it in a whimsical way”

Meaning:

To put effort into something; to execute something well

Example Situation:

This is yet another interesting case of Portuguese words with no English translation. The literal translation of capricho (the noun) would be “whim.” In Portuguese, capricho can also mean “whim,” actually.

But for some reason, the verb caprichar is different. When someone capricha in something, they’re doing it well or at least putting effort into it.

Usage in a Sentence:

  • Este relatório será apresentado ao chefe, então por favor capriche!
    “This report will be presented to the boss, so please make it as good as you can!”
  • Tem como fazer este cachorro-quente bem caprichado?
    “Can you make this hot dog a big and fat one?”

Note that the term has been employed in a connotative manner. A caprichado hot dog would be a big and fat one in the eyes of the speaker. This is what’s expected from the snack for it to be the best possible.

Additional Notes:

As you may have noticed, other forms of words can derive from caprichar. The noun capricho is one of them, and the adjective caprichado is another very common example. Either way, all of these words are often employed in colloquial register rather than formal.

13. How PortuguesePod101 Can Help You Learn More Untranslatable Words in Portuguese

Reasons for Studying

A friendly push can lead a beginner or intermediate speaker to a truly clear path of knowledge. In fact, learning a language alone is usually harder than connecting to other people, teachers, and cultures in the process.

PortuguesePod101 is a database that gathers free resources for Portuguese speakers at every level. Our sections and lessons are organized to guarantee a balanced approach to the content. Untranslatable terms in Portuguese will be easier to learn when you combine formal “classroom” teaching and informal, relaxed articles, podcasts, videos, and other learning tools.

Indeed, the MyTeacher feature is one to behold. This fast-track to fluency will give you guidance, one-on-one contact, and personalized feedback to help you improve your Portuguese skills. You’ll get to learn Portuguese terms we wish existed in English, and many other important cultural traits that are hard to get elsewhere without going abroad.

Get access to a whole new world of knowledge with PortuguesePod101. We’ll give you the tools—you finish the job!

Before you go, let us know in the comments if any of these words were new to you. We look forward to hearing from you!

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