Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween: My favorite word in Portuguese means Sorrow

One word for the day of the lost, the departed, the abandoned and the grieving.

All languages are special but the saying goes that one’s feelings are always stronger in one’s native language. Language theory says that different cultures add more words to their vocabulary according to the objects and feelings that are more frequently used by the people. As one word becomes too much in use, its meaning is deemed to be too general and people create more specific words to denote more precise meanings and create a more complete communication. Say, for example the word computer originated in the English/American culture which created such objects first, but, as the term became too widespread, new words appeared to differentiate objects with different usages: computers became desktops, laptops, playstations, notebooks, readers, smartphones and smartwatches. Words are also "borrowed" from other cultures with whom we have trade (for example, "boutique" or "rouge" are borrowed from French). Some words come into disuse and disappear or "die" from the vocabulary, remaining perhaps only as archaisms, left to poems, novels, dictionaries and museums.

Well, the same principle applies for the feelings or immaterial ideas that each culture expresses. Cultures where people more often feel nostalgia, happiness, gloom or indecision will create more words to denote more specific emotions. If a culture stops expressing certain emotions or discusses them less often, then the words for such emotions will disappear from daily use.

In Portuguese my favorite word is “mágoa”, which could be translated as “sorrow” or "burden". Portuguese use “mágoa” to denote a feeling of sadness and grief that is often not so extreme (unlike depression or suicidal thoughts), but it is felt permanently and lingers with you for a long time, often for one’s entire life. The loss of a loved one or a bitter painful disappointment early one's life and yet never entirely forgotten could be said to be "mágoa" or a deep wound inside one's heart. "Mágoa" is a feeling of discordant emotions, an inner conflict, it can both be sad and beautiful, as something forever lost and yet even with its pain you wished it here always with you. The word can also be used in a less common way as "resentment" or "feeling deception".

“Mágoa” comes from the Latin “macula” which means “stain” or "flaw" (do not confuse macula with dracula, dracul and vampire lore). However, popular tales also say that the word “mágoa” originates from the combination of the Portuguese words for bad water (“má agua”) and what is bitterer than drinking the devil’s water? That is why I both love the meaning, feeling and sound of this word. What could be more tragically beautiful than a feeling so acutely yours that it lingers a lifetime, it penetrates deeply as an unwashable stain,  it bleeds like a wound that never fully scarred, and yet it sounds just like water, the most precious thing of all? "Mágoa" denotes lasting sorrow and yet it resonates as beautiful as water, a symbol of life and hope. The British poet Auden in prison once remarked "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water." I believe many live despite their "mágoas". Some scholars believe that the deep origin of the words "mágoa" and "mácula" comes from the Proto-Italic (smatlo) or from the Proto-Indo-European (smhatlo) and Ancient Greek (σμάω, smáō), which means "wiping, cleansing". Therefore all these burdens and "mágoas" cleanse us from the grief and deceptions we all lived through.

All Latin languages have one or two words from the root “macula” and yet Portuguese has seven! Therefore one could say Portuguese feel seven times the sorrows of other western Europeans. In several countries, however, the word descendants of "macula" do not mean sorrow at all, like in Portuguese. In Spanish and English "macula" means the iris or the oval stain of ink inside the eye. In Portuguese "mácula", besides the anatomical meaning, is most commonly applied to mean sin. See why I absolutely love such a word? If the eyes are the doors to the soul, then they must also be the mirror of our sorrows and sins.

One can see the descendants of the Latin root “macula” in nearly any Romance language and even some other European languages: Asturian (mancha), Catalan (malla, macula), Czech (machule), English (macula, mail, macle, mackle, macule, macchia, maquis), French (maille, macule), Friulian (magle), Galician (mágoa, mancha), Italian (macchia, macula), Occitan (malha), Sicilian (macchia), Slovak (machuľa), Spanish (mancha, macula, mangla), and Venetian (macia).

The Portuguese have seven different kinds of stains either to express abstract feelings or real stains such as those caused by blood or ink: mancha, malha, mágoa, mácula, macla, mangra, maquis. Both Portuguese and English had a tradition of navy and sailing from its medieval and renaissance times. Perhaps their vocabularies drew on words heard in ports all over Europe. Travel opens the windows to the eyes, the ears and the heart! It is interesting to note that several of the Portuguese and English words derived from "macula" had its origin in medieval French and yet those words came into disuse in its original French culture.

What do you think readers? The famous singer, Amália Rodrigues, once sang that Fado was born from the bosom of a sailor on whose lips died a sorrowful song full of wasted desires and nostalgia. Amália also had the feeling that Portuguese women felt burdened with sorrows, seeing their husbands and children leave on sea trips or immigrate to distant countries. Fado may have been at first born in ports and sang by sailor men, but it eventually bloomed in the voices of sorrowful women, with hair and dress as black as ravens, that sang despairingly their heartfelt emotions of abandonment and loneliness. I leave you now to listen to Amália, whose voice means so much more than its words:


  1. Este fado, muito bem escolhido, cantado por Amália Rodrigues, demonstra toda a mágoa que perpassa pelo fado. Talvez o verso de Fernando Pessoa ajude a perceber como a fadista canta com tanto sentimento: O poeta é um fingidor / finge tão completamente / que chega a fingir que é dor / a dor que deveras sente

    1. Obrigado, Pai. O Pessoa escreveu isso acerca do Camoes. O Camoes, Pessoa e a Amália: os maiores vultos de Portugal.