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Six words that tell you everything you need to know about Brazil

Here are words to know – and how to pronounce them – for the Rio Olympics (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

If you want to know Brazil, people often suggest you learn Portuguese, and point to the words “obrigado” (thank you) or “saudade” (a sense of longing) as entry points. But these days, Brazilian culture is a lot more complicated than just saudade. Below, a contextualized cheat-sheet to the words Brazilians use in today’s troubled times, words that tell you a much more complex story about Brazil.

Crise (KREE-see)

This one is easy enough to translate into English, but in Brazil, it often refers to the country’s current economic crisis. Following several boom years, the bottom dropped out of Brazil’s economy. The country is in one of the greatest recessions of its history, and signs of the economic crisis are everywhere, from half-finished construction projects to shrinking businesses. The word crise has become Brazilians’ shorthand explanation for why something’s gone wrong over the past year. “We didn’t go on vacation because, you know, the crise.”

Gourmetização (gor-MAY-tee-zah-sahw)

Gourmetização is the act of turning everything, especially foodstuffs, into something more sophisticated (gourmet) and consequently more expensive. Instead of a hot dog that costs 5 Brazilian reais, gourmetização would call for you to add fancy stuff like gorgonzola and shiitake mushrooms on top and sell it for 11 reais. This trend popped up in Brazil over the past three years in parallel with the food truck boom. The trucks had to stand out to compete, which meant not selling French fries, but selling sweet potato crisps with rosemary truffle oil. The irony is that gourmetização has happened in conjunction with the crise, which perhaps stands as a testament to the resiliency of consumer culture in Brazil.

Petralha (pet-RAL-ya)

The petralha is a negative slang term used by Brazilians who favor the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff to refer to supporters of her leftist Worker’s Party (called PT – the root of the term) and her party’s patriarch, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. (A petralha thinks that Rousseff’s recent suspension from office was a coup.) Stereotypical negative images of a petralha include a lazy welfare recipient, a union worker on strike, and a weed-toking, bearded university student majoring in sociology. At protests, petralhas wear red and shout “Fora Temer!” (“Out, Temer!”), referring to interim President Michel Temer, who stepped into Rousseff's job.

Coxinha (koh-SHEEN-ya)

Coxinha has one meaning which is Brazil’s most famous street snack. Another is the opposite of the petralha, and what Rousseff’s supporters call someone who was in favor of her impeachment and supports centrist-right politicians, like Temer. The stereotypical negative image of a coxinha is a rich, bourgeois playboy, wearing a pastel polo shirt and popped collar, topped by Ray-Bans bought in Miami, and sporting a big watch that his dad gave him for Christmas. At protests, coxinhas sing the national anthem, wave the Brazilian flag, and wear yellow and green.

Jeitinho (zhay-CHEEN-yo)

The jeitinho is the street-smart ability to wriggle out of difficult situations. For many, this is a part of daily survival in Brazil: it’s the MacGyvering out of a jam, and the winking of your way into beneficial situations. But there is a bit of a negative connotation to the jeitinho as well, as it is often used as shorthand for corruption. “He must have used a jeitinho to win that big contract for his company.” It’s the normalization of this jeitinho in Brazil that some experts believe is at the heart of Brazil’s economic and political crisis.

Zoeira (zoh-AIR-ah)

Technically, zoeira means a cacophony, or an instance in which someone is kidding with you. In modern parlance, it refers to the act of joking around, even when things are bad. This comes up mostly when bad news breaks and Brazilians quickly make a million funny Internet memes about it. There is a saying in Brazil: “The zoeira never ends,” that is, Brazilians never quit joking. In its essence, the word zoeira captures the Brazilian cultural skill of making light of a bad situation.

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