Converting Portuguese to Spanish.

My brother sent me a 460-page pdf put out by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training called Argentina: Country Reader that includes interviews with embassy personnel who were there for stretches of duty between the 1930s and early 2000s, thinking I would be interested in the sections on the time when we were there, in the late 1960s, and I was indeed — I learned a lot about the politics and economy of the country that I had been unaware of when living there. I thought this passage from the interview with Edward M. Rowell, Political Officer, Buenos Aires (1965-1968) was LH material:

ROWELL: June, 1965. I was assigned to the Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had no workable Spanish. So I was assigned to the FSI for four or five weeks, the maximum amount of time I could be given that would allow me to get to Buenos Aires to be useful from the point of view of the Political Counselor and the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission].

I arrived at the Foreign Service Institute. I said, “I already speak Portuguese and you have already tested me in that. Now I need to speak Spanish.” They started to give me, in knee jerk fashion, their usual four-to-six month course. I said, “No, I don’t have time to waste on that.” They said, “Well, you’ll have to take that course, because otherwise you won’t learn Spanish properly.” So I said, “Test me.” The first thing that they wanted me to do was to sit at home and listen to endless tapes on how to pronounce Spanish. I said, “I think that I can pronounce Spanish. Give me a tape and have me read something. I may not understand what it says, but I think that I can pronounce it.” And I could. They said, “Well, all right, we’ll get rid of those tapes.” It interested them that I didn’t mispronounce Spanish the way a Brazilian would. That’s what they were afraid of — not my American accent but my Brazilian accent.

They finally turned loose a linguist who listened to me and listened to my Portuguese. Then he said, “All right.” And they created a special program for me. I went out and bought some books at one of the university bookstores, probably at George Washington University. I brought them in. They gave me a special class, which involved one linguist, one language instructor, and one student left over from the previous Spanish language course who still didn’t have an onward assignment. That person could act as a foil. In five weeks I was at the 3 – 3 level [speaking level 3 – useful; reading level 3 – useful], because they paid attention to converting my Portuguese, rather than just teaching me Spanish from scratch. That was the genesis of the present language instruction which converts Spanish to Portuguese or Portuguese to Spanish. That is the six-week program that they have.

This is not language-related, but it’s a great story, so I’m quoting it:

After I had been in Argentina for a year, I assumed responsibility for covering political events in some of the northern and western Argentine provinces. So I started off on my first provincial trip to call on governors, business leaders and others just to take the pulse of people outside of Buenos Aires. The views of the provinces throughout Argentina’s history had always differed sharply from the views of people in Buenos Aires.

On the Argentine railroads you could get a ticket for a berth, but you normally didn’t take a whole compartment. When I went to take this trip, the only unoccupied berth on the train, on this relatively long trip, was in a compartment of four berths. So I climbed into the railroad car.

The other berths were occupied by traveling salesmen. We talked. They learned who I was, and I knew who they were. About 10:00 PM they started a card game. I was tired, but they were talking and smoking. They were beginning to run low on wine but still enjoying the card game. Well, I happened to have a couple of bottles of wine in my bag, so I took out a bottle and gave it to them. They invited me to sit at the table. I said that I didn’t want to play cards. They said, “That’s all right. Just sit and talk with us.” So we talked. As the train rolled along the track to Córdoba in the middle of the night, they would look out the window and say, “Oh, this is Fulgencio,” or Diego, or whatever it was. They would give the names of these stations and the “estancias,” or large ranches, and then the towns. They said, “You know, this ranch owner has this and this, and he’s married to so-and-so, but his wife is having an affair with” somebody else. They knew this important person and that important person, and the mayor in this town had done this and that, and they’ve gone broke, so we don’t stop and sell machinery there this year.”

By the time I got off the train in Cordoba at 9:30 AM the next day I was cross-eyed, because I hadn’t been to bed and hadn’t slept. And I knew everything that was going on in the territory between Buenos Aires and Cordoba. I really didn’t have to call on a soul. Well, I did call on the senior provincial officials — the governor, the mayors of the big cities, and so on. However, ever since then I have respected the role of the traveling salesman.


  1. An anecdote from a Mexican diplomat on the potential pratfalls of conversion: reading the papers in Brazil, he was alarmed to read a classified ad — se vende secretaria con cadeiras movibles.

    They were selling a secretarial chair with a swivel seat, and not as he feared, a secretary with hips that move.

  2. Ha!

  3. This probably is a pretty common confusion word. Sekretar’ is a (masculine) word for secretary in Russian and sekreter is secretair as GT informs me. Russian word is not very widely used, but less exotic then English one. The saving thing in Russian is that the last vowel in both words is under stress, which diminishes the chance for confusion.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Sekretär for both in German, and for the secretarybird, too.

    But of course the stereotypical secretary continues to be of the female persuasion, thus Sekretärin.

  5. “Secretary” in English can also mean a certain kind of desk, although that usage probably counts as quaint these days.

  6. marie-lucie says

    Same for le secrétaire in French, a desk with shelves built above it. For centuries, human secretaries were male. When women entered (and almost monopolized) the profession, la secrétaire could no longer be confused with the piece of furniture, or the exotic bird with some long feathers..

  7. I assisted my parents in picking out a secretary, of the furniture type, about a quarter century ago. Hardly any of those available were designed for actual use as desks. That function of the secretary desk seed to be essentially obsolete. Buyers, including my parents, wanted them to adorn their living rooms for purely esthetic reasons.

  8. I had a manual typewriter on top of my secretary when I was a teenager (1969-1976, more or less).

  9. Lest anyone think I was that diplomat, it’s from the memoirs of Jesus Silva Herzog.

  10. I’ve noticed that the Portuguese -ão is consistently spelled -aõ in The Naturalist on the River Amazon by Henry Walter Bates. Was it an older spelling convention?

  11. In two words, yes it was. The tilde was also used more extensively in old Portuguese than it is now, sometimes confusingly (levaraõ instead of levaram so the preterite/pluperfect is indistinguishable from the future), sometimes amusingly (tãbẽ, hũa). EP still has Irã for Iran.

  12. Muito obrigado!

  13. Another puzzle. I have come across cachoeira, ie just ‘waterfall; cataract’. And then Cachoeira de Itapemirim popped up from somewhere buried deep in my subconscious. Turns out it’s CachoeirO. What gives? It seems the only cachoeiro that Google knows of. Does it mean something like “really, really big waterfall’ or something?

    From Old Tupi mirĩ[1].

    mirim (plural mirins, comparable)

    (Brazil, usually in compound animal names) tiny, little, wee
    Usage notes
    Mirim is usually used with other words of Tupi origin, such as tamanduá.

    mirim m (plural mirins)

    (Brazil) any small, stingless bee, especially those of the genus Plebeia
    Synonym: abelha-mirim

    No luck with itape, though.

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    From Portugese Wikipedia:

    O governador Francisco Alberto Rubim, que pode ser considerado o fundador da cidade, escreveu num ofício datado de julho de 1819, ao referir-se à medição de uma estrada que ele mandou abrir: “…Principia próximo do Quartel da Barca que fiz levantar na margem Sul do Rio Itapemirim defronte à primeira cachoeira seis léguas para o sertão da vila que faço menção…”. O mesmo Rubim, em ofício endereçado ao Conde da Barca, em junho de 1816, grafou conforme se pode ler no original: “… O primeiro caxoeiro dista dela (Vila do Itapemirim) seis léguas…”.

    Um outro governador da província, Machado de Oliveira, ao transcrever esse documento, em 1856, na Revista do Instituto Histórico, modificou o texto e a grafia: “… O primeiro cachoeiro deste rio dista da vila seis léguas…”.

    José Fernandes da Costa Pereira Júnior, a cujo encargo também esteve confiado o governo capixaba, oficiava, em 1863, Ao Assembleia Legislativa Provincial: “Ponte sobre as Caxoeiras de Itapemirim: orçada em dois contos de réis”. Num livro de notas, pertencente a um cartório campista, estava registrada, em 1736, referência a um pioneiro na fundação da Aldeia de São Fidélis, no Paraíba, lendo-se: “… chegando por bem duas vezes a acudir com quase toda a família hu
    manas três léguas ou mais desta Aldeya para cima por Cachoeiros quase inavegáveis”.

    Quando na freguesia de São Pedro do Cachoeiro, se editou o seu primeiro jornal: “O Itabira”, isto é, em 1866, ainda não estava firmada a grafia do nome do lugar. No corpo de redatores do jornal, destacava-se a colaboração de Basílio Daemon, autor de uma História Cronológica da Província e em cujas páginas foi grafado Cachoeiro acertadamente, com ch e no masculino.

    Em 1885 se escrevia o nome certo e por extenso. Alfredo Mário Pinto, nos “Apontamentos para o Dicionário Geográfico do Brasil”, registrou: “… Da Câmara Municipal dessa cidades recebemos, em 1884, a seguinte informação: A sede do município é a cidade do Cachoeiro de Itapemirim, que tem recente data, pois que a primeira casa construída foi no ano de 1846”.

    1. the itapemirim is the river.
    2. The name was written in several versions (masc/fem, sing/pl, x/ch) until the present name was made official.

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    From Portugese Wikipedia:

    “Itapemirim” é derivado do termo tupi antigo itapemirĩ, que significa “pequena pedra achatada”, através da aglutinação dos termos itá (“pedra”), peb (“achatado”) e mirĩ (“pequeno”).[1]
    [1] NAVARRO, E. A. Dicionário de tupi antigo. São Paulo. Global. 2013. p. 574.

  16. According to Michaelis (a dictionary of Brazilian Portuguese), “cachoeiro” is simply a regional, Espírito Santo variant of “cachoeira.”

  17. David Marjanović says
  18. John Emerson says

    Portuguese spelling is a thing in itself. On the one hand, Portuguese has (or once had) something like 13 letters with diacritical marks. On the other, in one poem I read the refrain was “E u e?” (= “Et ou est?”).

  19. itapemirĩ, que significa “pequena pedra achatada”

    “cachoeiro” is simply a regional, Espírito Santo variant of “cachoeira.”

    Thank you!

  20. Another curious thing:

    At a wild fruit tree we were more successful, as my companion shot an anaca (c coronatus), one of the
    most beautiful of the parrot family.

    (eg, from

    I wonder how

    Deroptyus Gr. derē neck; ptuon fan
    (eg, from

    has transmogrified into Derotypus.

  21. PlasticPaddy says

    According to

    Derotypus Bonaparte, 1850 is not the accepted name for the genus, which is Deroptyus Wagler, 1832.
    The link would allow you to find more information about the scientists and publications.

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Sekretär for both in German, and for the secretarybird, too.

    I don’t remember if I read this in 2018, but reading it now I didn’t initially reaiize that “bird” meant bird, rather than the (probably dated, now) British slang for a young woman. Any good birds? In the 1960s we used to ask our friends if they said they’d been to a party.

  23. David Marjanović says


    young woman

    There is a real James Bond who wrote a book titled Birds of America. Once Ian Fleming had published, that book suddenly became a bestseller, or so I’ve read.

    Must be related to “chick” somehow.

  24. Lars Mathiesen says

    chick — reinforced by Spanish chica, perhaps?

    I don’t think Danish has any ornithological metaphors for womankind — my cohort mostly went out for at se på damer, or less couthly kørvel ~ ‘chervil’; no telling what word young people use now-a-days when members of the female sex are the ones they are looking for.

  25. Trond Engen says

    Shared history and common language only takes you so far. Norwegian has i.a. rype> “ptarmigan; attractive woman” and røy “hen of black grouse; unattractive woman”. The former is often used to translate ‘chick’, especially if the ornithological connotations are important. As slang goes, it was outdated even in my days, but it can still be used (by men and women) to describe a combination of looks and attitude. As can røy, with the usual sexist and ageist implications.

  26. @PP
    Thank you again!

  27. Trond Engen says

    Me: hen of black grouse

    Did I say “black grouse”? I meant “capercaille”.

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