You’ve almost certainly heard a friend, a family member or an acquaintance utter an oft-repeated phrase to you before, maybe by way of advice or to clarify an everyday situation. While sometimes they can seem cliché, those little pearls of common wisdom and shared experiences are an integral part of casual conversation. And while you probably know lots of English ones if you’re reading this, proverbs appear in different languages and offer an insight into how different cultures tick.
For example, the expression diz-me com quem andas e eu te direi quem és (literally, “tell me who you’re with and I’ll tell you who you are”) is a curious case in the book of Brazilian Portuguese proverbs. The way this sentence is constructed isn’t very common in everyday Brazilian speech. The proverb uses formal verb conjugations (second-person singular), making it sound quite serious — which is the point. In “normal” language, the phrase would go something like me diga com quem você anda e eu te direi quem você é (same meaning, but using third-person singular). Choosing second-person singular adds an odd, almost impersonal edge to the sentence. When someone you know uses this type of language in conversation, its comes across as a warning, because they wouldn’t normally communicate with this verbal structure.
Another interesting aspect of proverbs and popular sayings is how they give a taste of local culture and common wisdom. In Brazil, where more than 80 percent of the population are Christian and almost 90 percent follow some sort of religion, there are many sayings involving saints, religious symbols or other references to faith.
It’s definitely worth knowing a few Portuguese proverbs. To get you started, here are 10 of the most commonly used ones.
10 Brazilian Portuguese Proverbs You Should Know
Água mole, pedra dura, tanto bate até que fura
Literal Translation: Soft water, hard stone, keeps beating until it gets through
This proverb comes at the top of our list because it is, without a doubt, one of the most commonly used in Portuguese. It represents the need to keep going in the face of difficult, seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
In its literal sense, water may not penetrate or split a rock straight away, but given enough time beating against it, erosion will break the rock down. It may take time, but a little persistence yields results.
A pressa é a inimiga da perfeição/Apressado come cru e quente
Literal Translation: Haste is the enemy of perfection/Hurried eats raw and hot
Following on a similar line with the previous entry, this expression emphasizes patience: good results require calm actions. The food version is even more explicit. If you eat too quickly, you’ll burn your mouth. Worse, your food will be raw.
De grão em grão, a galinha enche o papo
Literal Translation: Grain by grain, the hen fills her belly
Another expression stressing the value of patience. In other words, by combining small sums of money, eventually we can buy something expensive. The chicken keeps filling its belly one grain at a time until it feels full. This metaphor reminds us not to underestimate little actions. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day!
Cada macaco no seu galho
Literal Translation: Each monkey on its own branch
This expression tells us how everyone should take care of their own life and personal business without interfering with anyone else’s.
Diz-me com quem andas e eu te direi quem és
Literal Translation: Tell me who you’re with and I’ll tell you who you are
Here’s something a mother may have told her kids when she doesn’t like one of their friends. It’s message about how we can be led astray, taking on other people’s “flaws” or even being judged for associating with them. It generally has to do with bad influences.
Ladrão que rouba ladrão tem cem anos de perdão
Literal Translation: A thief who robs a thief has a hundred years of pardon
According to this proverb, if someone does a thief a bad turn, the act is partially acceptable because of the suffering and stress that the thief brought on others. So, it’s a form of payback or karma, because that person “deserved” to be punished.
Para bom entendedor, meia palavra basta
Literal Translation: For someone wise, half a word suffices
This is such a popular expression that Jorge Ben Jor uses it in his song “País Tropical.” In short, it means you don’t need to go on and on to get your point across clearly. If you choose your words wisely (or make the right insinuations), the meaning will be understood.
O seguro morreu de velho
Literal Translation: The safe man died old
Anyone who grew up in Brazil or in a Brazilian family is probably sick and tired of this one. It’s used in any situation that might involve some risk. A warning not to let yourself get taken for a ride, or you could end up with serious problems. Better to be a little cautious and avoid a scam than to dive in headfirst without considering what could go wrong.
Saco vazio não para em pé
Literal Translation: An empty bag doesn’t stand upright
This is a saying a kid will hear if they stay outside playing all day without coming in to eat. It’s a pretty literal expression: if you don’t eat, you’ll feel sick and may even pass out. A bag with nothing in it just flies away.
Não cutuque a onça com vara curta
Literal Translation: Don’t poke the jaguar with a short stick
This is common expression telling us that provoking someone or doing something dangerous without being prepared is a bad idea. The meaning of the phrase is pretty clear. The jaguar is an aggressive big cat in Brazil. Poking one with a short stick (so, up close) is a dumb thing to do, and it could have serious consequences if you don’t know how to defend yourself.
Bonus: Religious Proverbs In Portuguese
Deus ajuda quem cedo madruga
Literal Translation: God helps an early riser
This expression means that those who wake up early to go to work or do a task will have their efforts rewarded with a helping hand from on high. On the flip side, this implies that sloth — one of the deadly sins in Christianity — will be somehow punished with money problems or some other bad fortune.
Santo de casa não faz milagre
Literal Translation: A stay-at-home saint works no miracles
This proverb has a few similar meanings. It can refer to a time when we don’t trust the words of people close to us, but we’ll happily accept advice from an “outsider.” It might also be used when someone close to us fails to understand or solve a problem, while an outsider does so with ease.
This article was originally published on the Portuguese edition of Babbel Magazine.