Portuguese Idioms: Armless John and the fat chicken next door

Portuguese Idioms are a constant source of confusion and amusement for me. A few months ago, one of my Brazilian colleagues and I were discussing a technical issue at work (I won’t bore you with the details – if you knew the details, you’d thank me for not boring you with them). Things were going well until he said that he thought we might be “Procurando pêlo em ovo”.


“You think we’re…searching for a hair in an egg?” I asked, clearly baffled. I thought about it some more. “Is that like looking for a needle in a haystack?”. Now it was his turn to look confused! However, his confusion didn’t last long as he cleverly countered with “You know, like procurando chifre na cabeça de cavalo.

Touché! I scrambled for my dictionary to find the meaning of ‘chifre’ (it means ‘horn’). The full phrase translates to “Searching for horns on a horse’s head.” Both Portuguese phrases mean to look for something that isn’t there. The English phrase (to search for a needle in a haystack) has a slightly different meaning: to search for something which is there, but which is effectively impossible to find because it is hidden in such a huge space or amongst a huge number of other items.


A haystack (Portuguese: palheiro) – the perfect place to hide a needle!


These things make sense once you have someone explain them to you, but they can stop you in your tracks if you’ve never heard them before. Since that day I’ve been collecting these interesting Portuguese idioms and today I thought I’d share a few more.

João sem braço

João sem braço – ‘John without arms’. This little gem was also casually dropped into conversation by that same colleague (clearly he has a taste for idioms!). Apparently back in the days that Portugal was at war, people who had lost limbs were excused from fighting (seems reasonable) and relied on others for help. Over the years this evolved into a phrase to describe someone feigning helplessness or ignorance. The best English translation would be to ‘play dumb’.


Maria vai com as outras

It’s always João and Maria! This one translates literally as ‘Maria goes with the others’ and means to follow the crowd, to lack independent thought. The potentially confusing English equivalent would be to call someone a sheep.


Who are you calling Maria?


Água mole em pedra dura tanto bate até que fura

I will buy a beer (or equivalent beverage of choice) for anyone who can come up with an English translation (which rhymes) of this Portuguese phrase. My clumsy translation goes something like this: Soft water that hits a hard rock for enough time will eventually break it (Professional translators, your jobs are safe). This one is an ode to the power of persistence over seemingly insurmountable problems.


A galinha do vizinho sempre é mais gorda

And finally an example to prove that English can be just as eccentric as Portuguese. The literal translation of the Portuguese phrase above is that your neighbour’s chicken is always fatter (than your chicken). This one seems fairly clear doesn’t it? This speaks of the folly of envy; it says that the things we don’t have often appear better than the things we do have (though actually often aren’t).

And the English equivalent? The grass is always greener (on the other side of the fence). Now then, I can understand someone coveting their neighbour’s plump chicken, but if you’re feeling insecure about the hue of your lawn you need to take a look at your priorities (and possibly invest in a good lawn fertiliser).



It turns out the grass is always greener!



9 replies
  1. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Hey Tom, the translator in me loves this post! You’re right when you say “procurando pelo em ovo” is not quite the same as “procurando agulha no palheiro.” We do have both expressions :)

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Ah! You have the haystack phrase as well! In which case I think the English speakers should have the ‘hair in an egg’ / ‘horns on a horse’s head’ phrase. But so far I haven’t been able to think of an equivalent (I bet one exists though…).

      Glad you liked the post – learning idioms makes a nice change from the dreaded subjuntivo… ;)

  2. The Gritty Poet
    The Gritty Poet says:

    An illustration depicting why grass is greener due to vantage point interlaced with the fact that you actually convinced someone to marry you definitely proves that “Água mole em pedra dura tanto bate até que fura”. :-)

  3. Andrew Francis
    Andrew Francis says:

    I’ve used the expression “Johnny Armless” a few times here in London. People don’t get it and look at me funny but I still think it could catch on. :)


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