Learning the metaphors

The best part of learning a new language is when the metaphors and similes begin to make sense. I was reminded of this today, when my wife and I were making plans for running errands. I said, “Oh, and we can do X, and also Y, and maybe we’ll have time for Z.”

She said, “Meter o Rossio na Betesga?” — and I had to laugh.

Praça do Rossio is one of the biggest plazas in Lisboa, and a central part of the old city. Leading out of it is a short, narrow street which travels the width of a single building before dumping traffic into the smaller Praça da Figueira. This little street is called Rua Betesga.

Rossio and Betesga

Meter o Rossio na Betesga means “putting Rossio Plaza in Betesga Street.” It’s a much more colorful version of the American “putting too much on your plate,” which is one of the reasons I like it. The other reason is that it’s so regional. Understanding this metaphor requires a knowledge of Lisboa, or at least of its most famous plaza and the tiny street next door. What’s more, this is a knowledge that most Portuguese would have, even if they hadn’t ever been to Lisboa. Portugal is a small nation with one major city; Lisboa permeates the culture. (Residents of Porto might disagree with me on this!)

I was trying to think of any American metaphors that are similarly based on knowledge of place, and coming up blank. There are probably metaphors that are understood within a particular local area, but nationally? We’re too huge, and there’s no single city or architectural feature that practically everyone has either been to or knows of via cultural references.

Although, now that I’m musing on it, we do have our famous natural spots — and one single architectural feature that every American knows about. So perhaps we could say “putting the Grand Canyon in the White House.”

Nah. Doesn’t have the same ring.

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About oregon expat

Socialist heathen and Mac-using writer who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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11 Responses to Learning the metaphors

  1. JR says:

    Nice. I was just moping over some Portuguese, so this post served as a good pick me up.

    The only U.S.-specific geographic idiomatic expressions/metaphors I can think of have to do with swampland in Arizona or buying the Brooklyn Bridge to refer to gullibility. Or possibly doing something in a New York minute or Texas style (whatever that might be). I hear riffs on “What happens in Vegas” quite often, but I think that has more to do with the current success of the city’s ad campaign. We’ll see if it lasts out the decade.

    A generic geographical phrase that only makes sense in the (unfortunate) context of U.S. history, “He sure sold me down the river.”

    • oregon expat says:

      Good points on those regional metaphors — it’s true that I knew the phrase “I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you” before I even knew where Brooklyn was. (Think I might have learned that one from a Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon.) But the “sold me down the river” metaphor — ugh. I wonder how many people use that one without giving a moment’s thought to what it actually means?

      • Inge says:

        All right.. now i’m doubly curious. What is ‘sold me down the river’. Purely on its literally meaning, i’d guess it would have something to do with slavery?

        • oregon expat says:

          Originally, yes. Since slavery in the US existed at a time when rivers were the main transportation mode in the interior, a slave who had been sold would generally be transported to her or his new owner via riverboat. And since slaves were often sold without concern for their family ties (wives were separated from husbands, parents from children), being “sold down the river” was associated with a feeling of great harm or betrayal, and the inability to do something about it. Today the phrase is a shortcut means of conveying those feelings.

      • JR says:

        I hear it regularly, but it does seems that it’s being replaced by “he threw me under the bus,” thanks to reality TV. Those two phrases have different connotations for me, but I guess when you’re ranting in righteous indignation in front of a camera, you don’t worry too much about precision in language.

        I’m not sure, of course, but I would guess that most people probably think the phrase “sold down the river” evolved after/against “sent up river (to Sing Sing).” So, there you go, there’s another U.S. example for you :)

  2. JMG says:

    Betesga, Oregon Expat, Betesga and not Batesga. And yes, residents of Porto disagree with that: You live in Algarve and stroll around the South and Center. Should you live in a Northern town for some years, you would learn a lot about Portugal that cannot be aprehended in Lisbon. Still, someone like yourself cannot but be welcome anywhere, I’m absolutely positive about that.

    • oregon expat says:

      Thank you for the edit! (And the very kind words.) I corrected the post, after having a chat with my wife, who had proofread the original at my request specifically to check my spelling. Her defense is that it’s harder to read things on my laptop than on hers…

      I’ve no doubt you’re right about the things to be learned by living in the north. Alas, I’m limited to occasional visits…and am thinking it’s time for another one.

  3. Susana Gama says:

    I don’t agree that all the Portuguese know that expression. The first time I ever heard it i was in my middle twenties. I bet if you take a while and ask people in the street if they know what Betesga is or means, the majority would say they don’t know. That’s such a “burguesa e lisboeta” expression. It might have been once or twice mentioned in the late 19th century portuguese literature, and by that mean spread by a few literates around the country or even by young people that made their studies in Lisbon.
    Great blog, by the way !

  4. Fátima Santos says:

    I’ve heard this expresson since I’m a child. Although I’ve understood the meaning of it, only years ago I could finally see where Betesga was. I agree it’s a cultural expression and fits well.
    The locals of Porto are strong defenders of their city, they do it passionatly!

  5. Wagemage says:

    An obvious example of this phenomena in the American flavour of English is “The whole nine yards” – it assumes knowledge of slang used by servicemen of the US Army (it is, allegedly, the length of the ammo belt on a ‘ma deuce’ machine gun – though there’s quite some debate around that).

    Of course, usage is now so widespread that no-one actually knows where it came from. I first heard the “Rossio na Rua da Betesga” idiom in my teens, and from a particularly colorful and slangy speaker at that… I suspect that while everyone using the expression knows what Rossio is, many will have no idea of where or how long Rua da Betesga is.. though just from the name, one assumes a small and obscure street.

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