Sunday, December 2, 2012

Lula, Dilma and Pelé: Brazil, a country of first names and creative monikers.

 For eight years Brazil was headed by President “Squid”. The former president was universally referred to as Lula, squid in Portuguese, his trade-union-days nickname. Now Dilma is holding the office. Dilma is her first name; in Brazil she is very rarely referred to as President Rousseff. Pelé is a soccer icon, few people actually know or even bother with his real name, Edson Arantes do Nascimento.  Joaquim, and Macarrão are two names which are currently making the front pages of newspapers in Brazil.

Over the past month, they have become household names. Joaquim is a first name and Macarrão is a nickname (Portuguese for macaroni). But these two persons cannot be further apart. Joaquim Benedito Barbosa Gomes is a judge and the new president of the Brazilian supreme court. Macarrão, a handy man cum driver, is now in jail for helping his boss, Bruno, murder his mistress. Bruno, a famous soccer player, is awaiting his own trial. Macarrão’s real name is Luiz Henrique Romão, which was certainly mentioned in court but not in the street. Macarrão is a common nickname given to men and domestic animals that are laid back or tend to get confused and muddle-headed.                 

Many Brazilians are not called by the names which are typed on their ID cards. It may be just as well, as names are traditionally very long. Surnames are commonly double barreled. Brazilians have long been legendary for their single-name tags. This tradition carries an additional exotic element, as creative nicknames often replace the given first name. Soccer players notably use nicknames, a common practice in sport. Yet the national love for informality and whimsical monikers often lead to the ridiculous and the vulgar.

Sociologists have long indicated that referring to a person by his or her first name was very much a “New World” practice. Brazilian phone books still list people by their first names instead of their surnames.  When this blogger first came to Brazil to work in a large mining company, she was referred to as Dra Beatriz, or Dr. Beatriz. Her immediate boss went by the title of Dr. Lyrio, his surname; another boss of hers was identified as Dr. Breno, his first name. The highly respected CEO of the company was universally known as Dr. Eliezer, his Christian name. Local conventions are loose; background, personality, track record and lifestyle may influence the choice of name and nicknames.

Brazil doesn’t seem to have any baby-naming law. In Brazil as in the United States of America, parents can name their babies almost anything. However, Brazilians are head and shoulders above the Americans in terms of creativity when selecting the names of their children. True, the registry officer may object to a name which could cause ridicule or be offensive. Yet in the north-east region of Brazil unconventional and improbable names are routinely registered. Parents seem to have great expectations for their offspring as the list below implies. Among a very long list, these names stand out: Anjo Gabriel Rodrigues Santos (Gabriel Archangel).
Dysney Chaplin Ribeiro.
Elvis Presley da Silva.
Hericlapiton da Silva (Portuguese pronunciation for Eric Clapton?).
Ludwig van Beethoven Silva.
Maicon Jakisson de Oliveira (mangled version of Michael).
Marili Monrói de Oliveira.
Marlon Brando Benedito da Silva.
Sherlock Holmes da Silva.                                                                              
Colapso Cardiaco da Silva (Cardiac Arrest).                                                               
Ladigaga de Almeida Souza.
And my favorite is: Ceu Azul do Sol Ponente do Nascimento, which can be translated into Blue Sky of Sunset do Nascimento.

In addition to the names of celebrated soccer players, show business and soap opera characters, the names of victims of notorious murders are frequently chosen by parents. As a matter of fact, in 2012 many baby girls were given the name Elisa, the name of Bruno’s murdered mistress. Isabela, currently the most popular name in Brazil, is also the name of a murder victim, an infant in São Paulo.

Unique to Brazil, race-related nicknames don’t irk much. At school a very dark skinned boy will be referred to as Negão (from the Portuguese Negro, a somewhat affectionate name for an Afro Brazilian buddy), or as Feijão (black bean). A person with a very white skin will be dubbed Tapioca. The childhood’s nickname may stick into adulthood. Singer and former minister Gilberto Gil has a daughter named Preta which means black (feminine). When he tried to register her name, the registry officer first refused but Gil got his way by agreeing to add Maria to Preta. He argued that there were many Rosas (Rose), Blancas, Biancas (Blanche is white in French) and Violet, so why not Black! Preta followed in her father’s footsteps, she is a famous singer.

Pages after pages could be filled with the peculiar and often incongruous monikers of soccer players and candidates for local elections. Recently the New York Timesran an article titled “Where Daniel the Cuckold and Zig Zag Clown Vie for Office” (September 16, 2012) to express its admiration of the vitality of Brazilian democracy. Although there are some restrictions on exuberant names the candidates can select to promote themselves, almost anything goes. Many people with names like Batman, Obama, and even an Elvis Didn’t Die ran for the municipal elections. Many of these silly nicknames convey hints of friendliness, familiarity and even of affection. Conversely they very well illustrate the rough and tumble of today’s Brazil.

Apparently a bill to restrict baby-naming freedom is circulating in the Brazilian congress. Its sponsor is Congressman Paulo Sérgio Paranhos de Magalhães. He doesn’t seem to have a nickname. Should we hope the bill doesn’t pass?