Older than…

Cathedral main entrance

Sorry for the lack of posting yesterday; we were up in the Alentejo for the day. It certainly looks different from when I last saw it in April! Then it was lush and carpeted with spectacular flower displays; now it’s brown and toasty hot. Of course, the Algarve has turned brown as well, but I live here and see the daily changes, so it doesn’t seem so drastic.

Anyway, while driving along I was thinking about Portuguese metaphors and similes, and thought I’d toss out this one:

Mais velho que a Sé de Braga.

It means, “Older than the Braga Cathedral,” and refers to something that is really, really ancient. The Sé de Braga was begun sometime after 1070 and first consecrated in 1089, after the completion of the eastern chapels.

I find the choice of comparators interesting, because there are certainly older things in Portugal — the Templo Romano in Évora comes to mind. Then I wonder what similar comparator we could use in the US and have to laugh, because of course in the US we think anything built before 1900 is ancient. Therefore, we have to take a whole different tack. The two similar US phrases I can think of are “older than God” and “older than dirt.” Personally I’m a fan of the latter. There’s just something about dirt.

As an aside, here is a typical conversation between me, the grammar nerd, and my wife:

Me: But shouldn’t it be “Mais velho do que a Sé de Braga”?

J: Well…yes, but it’s not.

Me: Why not?

J: It’s just not!

Me: But that doesn’t make any sense!

J: Well, that’s the way it is! It probably started out as “do que” and got shortened to “que.”

Me: (grumble)

J: English is just as bad. Why the hell is “were” in werewolf, ‘we’re going now,’ and ‘we were just going’ all spelled the same but has three different pronunciations and three different meanings?

Me: Because it just does.

J: See?!

(Photo of the Sé de Braga from Wikipedia.)

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, 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 Older than…

  1. Scout says:

    But were and we’re aren’t spelled the same. One has an apostrophe… … And clearly the ‘wolf’ on the end of werewolf adds a silent ‘h’ after the ‘w’ so it sounds like where :p

  2. Power Wench says:

    Hey! Only people born in the western part of the US of A think “before 1900 = ancient.” For those of us born on the eastern seaboard, it’s anything predating 1650 or so.

  3. Ana_ñ says:

    Curious.
    In Spain, among other expressions, you can hear frequently “older than Methuselah” (/más viejo que Matusalén/ or /tiene más años que Matusalén/)
    The dictionary says it is also an English expression, but maybe it’s not very common.

    • oregon expat says:

      We have that one, too, but I think it’s a bit old-fashioned and not much in use these days. Then again, I’m not a churchgoer, so maybe in the religious circles it’s still being used.

  4. JR says:

    Not that I’d ever take sides in a grammar war, *but* in defense of your wife:

    I work with early 18th-century Portuguese, so my collection of dictionaries and grammar books tends towards the “older than Braga Cathedral” end of things. I tried to trace back the do que/que distinction in time and see if and/or how early I could find an explanation. I started with a book published in 1966 and worked my way back into the 19th century. Many books mention the construction, but no book explains it. The earliest grammar book to which I have access (downloaded from Google Books, actually), says the following:

    “Observe, that there can be no comparison made without the word *than*; and that this word is expressed in Portuguese by *que*…The particle *que* is sometimes preceded by the word *do*.”

    And that’s it. The 1827 version of the book is equally unhelpful. As was every other book.

    So, it seems the ‘do’ has been optional for a long time, well before the early 20th c. orthography reforms started to clear up some of the oddities. At least, it’s been optional long enough that “it is just isn’t” is probably a good explanation 😉

  5. Karyn says:

    I grew up hearing “older than the hills.” There is not a whole lot of difference between “dirt” and “hills.” I wonder if there is a regional difference in the origins of those expressions?

  6. Marta says:

    And the old “ghoti” that could be read as “fish”. If you read the “gh” as in laugh/cough, o as in women and ti as in nation/emotion…. It’s hard for non-native English speakers to figure it out!

    As for the que/do que debate, I am not an expert, but I agree it is optional in casual talk.

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