Marsel de Souza
A few weeks ago, the Brazilian president used the Portuguese terms ‘gripezinha’ and ‘resfriadinho’ in a TV address to dismiss COVID-19 as a ‘little flu’ or a ‘little cold.’ These were the literal English translations of the two terms that appeared in many news media reports around the world the following day. Yes, this is morphologically correct (you just add -zinha [feminine form] and -inho [masculine form] to the words ‘gripe’ and ‘resfriado’ to form the diminutive), but some international media outlets came up with alternatives for a more… minimalist effect, including ‘measly cold’ and ‘the sniffles.’ ‘A little dose of flu’ was also creative. Some termed it a ‘mild flu’ or a ‘minor cold,’ which bordered on cuteness, but these terms don’t quite reflect the disdain present in the Portuguese. Interestingly, some outlets used the phrases ‘just the flu or ‘just a cold’ to refer to the belittling attitude of other political leaders at the beginning of the pandemic, but not specifically for Bolsonaro’s Lilliputian statement. What some news media outlets did use to refer to Bolsonaro’s ‘gripezinha’ was ‘just a little flu.’
This is firm evidence that diminutives in Portuguese can be a powerful means of expressing a disparaging opinion of things or people. To illustrate this point further, let me take you from the Planalto Palace to the White House (but please stay home!). Remember when the U.S. president fired off the term ‘shithole countries’ during a discussion about immigration issues? If Trump were Brazilian, he might have dropped the term ‘paisinhos,’ i.e., the diminutive of ‘países’ (countries). Well, -inho/a and -zinho/a are just the tip of the diminutive-suffix iceberg in Portuguese, and we will be looking at a handful of them up close (no need for a microscope) on our journey. A Portuguese-speaking Trump could also have used ‘paisecos’ (país + eco in the plural form). And he could have appended an unflattering adjective to ‘paisinhos/paisecos,’ which is discussed in a different article of mine.
OK, now back to Brazil. Since we are a continent-sized nation, as the cliché has it, we also like things big and often expect them to be. After the sturdy performance of the Brazilian economy for the better part of the 2000s, the term ‘pibão’ (big GDP) was coined in the news media. However, as a result of the 2008 global crisis, the throttling GDP growth rates gave way to dwindling rates in the following years, and a new term was crafted. You guessed it; ‘pibinho’ was the new addition to a sizable family of wee words. It wasn’t long before the term ‘pibeco’ came along.
The suffix “eco/a” is usually derogatory. For example, a ‘jornaleco’ (jornal + eco) is a second-rate newspaper, and the chances are that a ‘padreco’ (padre + eco) will be an unimportant priest from a backwater parish. Whenever the legendary national soccer team is beaten, Brazilians will rush to tag it a ‘timeco,’ whatever the competition. Now, try to imagine what hardcore soccer fans called them when they were resoundingly beaten 7-1 by Germany in the 2014 FIFA World Cup (which, to add insult to injury, was held in Brazil). I would go with ‘timeco de quinta categoria’ (a fifth-rate team) or ‘timinho de várzea’ (a less-than-amateur neighborhood team). But wait – ‘sono’ means ‘sleep,’ yet a ‘soneca’ is just a nap. Your ‘amoreco’ (‘amor’ = love) is your darling… who can also be your ‘amorzinho’! So don’t expect to find consistent rules for diminutives.
There are over a dozen more suffixes to shrink people and things in Portuguese, and fortunately, the wealth of undersized words used by Brazilians is not confined to negative overtones. In fact, diminutives are deeply ingrained in the Brazilian culture, and they can be at once baffling and endearing. We’ll continue to explore them in Part 2. Stay tuned! It will just take me a ‘momentinho’ to write the next installment in the major (minor?) exploits of diminutives in the tropical version of the Portuguese language.
Marsel N. de Souza is a full-time interpreter and translator based in Brasilia, Brazil. He has a bachelor’s degree in English>Portuguese translation from the University of Brasilia and a certificate in advanced French studies from Alliance Française. He is also an ATA-certified English>Portuguese translator. He works primarily with the diplomatic and international organization community in Brasilia, but his interpreting and translation assignments have taken him to various parts of the U.K., U.S., Brazil, France, and Africa. He is a member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters.