Learning a new language allows you to pick up lots of fun cultural titbits, including unexpected meanings of common idioms.
The Portuguese language is filled with animal-related idioms which, translated literally, sound amusing to English speakers.
Below are some of our favourite everyday ‘wild’ idiomatic expressions used in Portugal and Brazil that we’re sure you’ll enjoy!
Comprar gato por lebre
Translation: To buy a cat thinking it was a rabbit.
Meaning: This is a very famous Brazilian expression that means “to be fooled”. Often used when referring to politics, the English equivalent is: “to buy a pig in a poke”.
Peixe não puxa carroça
Translation: Fish don’t pull wagons.
Meaning: This Brazilian Portuguese idiom refers to the response that might be offered by a traditional “meat and potatoes” eater when offered fish for a meal, the implication being that fish is not suitable food for someone doing manual labour.
Ter macaquinhos na cabeça
Translation: To have little monkeys in the head.
Meaning: It describes a person who invents things to be concerned about or imagines dreadful things. So it’s a criticism of the exaggerated fears that someone presents without any logic or reason.
Vai pentear macacos!
Translation: Go comb monkeys!
Meaning: This is an acceptable way to tell someone to get lost, or drop dead!
Translation: To swallow frogs.
Meaning: This is the Portuguese equivalent for “to bite one’s tongue”, so it refers to holding back a remark one would like to make. It can also be used to describe accepting a difficult or unpleasant situation without complaining: “to take it on the chin”.
Tirar o cavalinho da chuva
Translation: To take the horse from the rain.
Meaning: Don’t hold your breath! Or don’t count on it!
Burro velho não aprende línguas
Translation: Old donkey doesn’t learn languages.
Meaning: This phrase is the equivalent of “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, but with donkeys. A donkey is often used to refer to someone who isn’t very clever, so presumably an old donkey is not only dumb, but forgetful (and maybe grumpy too).
Macacos me mordam!
Translation: Monkeys are biting me!
Meaning: This is used when someone is intrigued by or surprised about something. As if being bitten by a monkey would bring you back to reality.
Translation: Turning chickens.
Meaning: This Portuguese expression is used to appoint someone that has a lot of experience in one field.
Armar-se em carapau de corrida
Translation: To be like a racing mackerel.
Meaning: The mackerel is not exactly a noble fish. So a racing mackerel – a mackerel who’s swimming faster than the others – is a person who thinks he’s a big shot but, in fact, is a nobody.
É cor de burro quando foge
Translation: It’s the colour of a donkey on the run.
Meaning: Another donkey expression – in fact, donkeys as with monkeys appear to feature quite a lot in Portuguese idioms. This one is used to talk about a colour you cannot easily describe.
Matar dois coelhos com uma tacada só
Translation: To kill two rabbits with just one shot.
Meaning: To succeed in achieving two things in a single action. In English we’d say “to kill two birds with one stone”.
Cavalo dado não se olha os dentes
Translation: Don’t look at a gift horse’s teeth.
Meaning: Be grateful for what’s given freely and don’t judge it — just say thanks!
A galinha do vizinho sempre é mais gorda
Translation: The neighbour’s chicken is always fatter.
Meaning: Similar to “the grass is always greener on the other side”, this expressions warns against envy – what you don’t have will always look better than what you do have.
De noite todos os gatos são pardos
Translation: At night all cats are gray.
Meaning: Because everything looks similar in the dark, and you can’t distinguish objects and people well at night, this expression means that it’s easy to make mistakes.
Ready to explore for yourself?
Discover Portugal on a Pura Aventura trip! While Lisbon and Porto’s fame as foodie city breaks is well established, there’s so much more to discover; we think you’ll be very amply rewarded for doing so…