portuguese idioms

Portuguese Idioms for Learners: 50 Common Portuguese Phrases

When you’re learning a new language, there’s nothing more annoying than translating something word for word and getting a confused expression in return.

Just imagine translating the English expression “it’s raining cats and dogs” literally into another language. It just doesn’t make much sense, unless various domestic pets literally are falling from the sky.

The same is true of Portuguese idioms.

The song “Malandro é malandro e mané é mané,” for example, doesn’t really mean much if you translate it literally: “a trickster is a trickster and a fool is a fool.” But if you know that this phrase is an idiom similar to the English expression “winners will be winners and losers will be losers,” then the song suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Whether you’re a beginner or almost fluent in Portuguese, learning Portuguese idioms will give your speech that extra quality to make the locals say, “Isso aí cara!” (That’s it, man!) in admiration for your Portuguese knowledge.

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How Can I Learn Portuguese Idioms?

An idiom is a group of words that, when placed together, takes on a new, nonliteral meaning. Just like the English phrase “to beat around the bush,” idioms don’t really make sense when you try to read them literally.

In other words, idioms are figurative language. 

Used in the right way, Portuguese idioms can make you sound like a native.

You’ll hear them regularly even though you may not notice them. For those learning a new language, an idiom might seem out of place until you learn what it means.

Learning Portuguese idioms is a great way to mix up your language study. It can also be a fun way to learn new vocabulary that you might not have come across otherwise.

This list has a whopping 50 Portuguese idioms, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (see what we did there?).

So, how do you learn them all?

Unfortunately, to learn Portuguese idioms, you have to memorize them. Fortunately, idioms are usually pretty illustrative and fun. Try drawing a picture that represents the idiom so you can associate it with the saying.

You can start by learning one Portuguese idiom per week, then use the idiom of the week in your daily life. You might even write it out in example sentences or think of situations where you might use it.

If you want to be exposed to more idioms, you might find a book on Portuguese idioms or seek out places where idioms might be used frequently, such as in blog posts.

portuguese idioms

More advanced online courses might also teach you some idioms. FluentU, for example, has a huge library of videos that are sure to include people using Portuguese idioms in real-life situations. That’s because FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

A Portuguese learning program is currently in development, so stay tuned for an immersive, authentic way to learn Portuguese, coming soon!

50 Portuguese Idioms to Use in Conversations and Sound Like a Native

Now, let’s learn some Portuguese idioms!

1. Cara de pau

Literal translation: “wooden face”

This Portuguese idiom from Brazil is used to say that someone’s acting shamelessly.

You know those cat videos where the cat is going to knock something off the table and the owner shouts to for the cat to stop? Then the cat stares straight at its owner and promptly knocks the item off the table? That’s a perfect example of the cat being cara de pau (shameless).

2. É muita areia para o meu caminhão

Literal translation: “this is too much sand for my truck”

Maybe you’ve taken on too much. You’re working full-time, volunteering on the weekends, going to school at night, playing in a local sports league and you just can’t say no.

You might say it’s more than you can handle, which is what this idiom means. It’s close in meaning to the English “I’m in way over my head.”

3. Maria vai com as outras

Literal translation: “Maria goes with the others”

If you want to call someone out for just following the crowd or being a follower of the pack, this is the idiom you’re looking for.

4. Uma andorinha não faz verão

Literal translation: “one swallow does not make a summer”

This idiom exists in English, too, but with a slightly different meaning. In English, you use it to mean that one occurrence of something doesn’t mean that it’s a trend.

In Portuguese, it means that working together is more beneficial than working alone.

5. Cair a ficha

Literal translation: “to drop the token”

Say your friend is trying to explain some physics concept, but it’s just not making sense. Then, finally, you understand! When that happens, you might say, “Caiu a ficha!” (“I get it!”)

In other words, use this Brazilian phrase when you finally understand something.

6. Ficar de molho

Literal translation: “to be soaking”

If you hate lying in bed all day, you might use this phrase. It’s used to describe waiting uncomfortably or having to rest despite not wanting to.

If you get sick and have to stay home from work, you might say you have to ficar de molho.

7. Comprar gato por lebre

Literal translation: “to buy a cat thinking it was a rabbit”

While this phrase means that you’ve been fooled, the Brazilian idiom is usually used when talking about someone being fooled in politics, specifically.

8. Sem eira nem beira

Literal translation: “without land nor roof”

If someone is penniless, then they can be described as sem eira nem beira or, in other words, destitute.

9. Ir para o olho da rua

Literal translation: “to go to the eye of the street”

This idiom means to be fired from a job. You can say someone’s mandado (sent) pro olho da rua.

10. Pôr o rabo entre as pernas

Literal translation: “to put one’s tail between the legs”

We all know the image. When a dog is scared, its tail goes between its legs. But as an idiom in Portuguese, it means to leave feeling shameful.

11. Torcer o nariz

Literal translation: “to tweak one’s nose”

If you disagree with something, a quick way to say so is by using this idiom. It’s similar to saying that you “turn your nose up” at something in English.

12. Ficar a ver navios

Literal translation: “to stay watching the ships”

Ficar a ver navios is an idiom from Portugal that refers to when someone waits for something to happen but it never does.

13. De noite todos os gatos são pardos

Literal translation: “all night, all cats are gray”

At night, you can’t see very well, so even a cat with the brightest orange fur will appear gray. The idiom is used to say that it’s easy to make mistakes.

14. A carapuça serviu

Literal translation: “the hat fits”

Literally, this Portuguese idiom means “the hat fits,” which is very similar to the English idiom of the same meaning: “if the shoe fits.” You use this ironically when someone accidentally outs themselves as guilty.

So, if someone lies to you and then accidentally says something that outs them, you’d say “Serve-te carapuça?”

15. Coração de pedra

Literal translation: “heart of stone”

The mental image this phrase creates is pretty spot on with the meaning: It refers to a person with no empathy. In English, we’d say that it’s a “heart of ice.”

16. Quem vê cara, não vê coração

Literal translation: “those who see faces don’t see hearts”

If you want to know the Portuguese equivalent phrase to “don’t judge a book by its cover,” this is the phrase!

17. Partir o côco a rir

Literal translation: “to break the coconut laughing”

If you like telling jokes, you might use this idiom to describe your audience. It describes a person laughing so hard that they lose control.

18. Está para nascer um burro

Literal translation: “a donkey is about to be born”

We all expect that the people we know will act a certain way. When they don’t, we’re shocked.

This idiom refers to someone doing something so out of the ordinary that it’s hard to believe.

19. Barata tonta

Literal translation: “dizzy cockroach”

If you’ve ever seen a cockroach run away because it knows you’re going to smash it, then you’ll understand this funny Portuguese expression.

It’s used to refer to someone who’s clumsy or disoriented—much like a cockroach after the first time you smack it.

20. Ir com os porcos

Literal translation: “he went with the pigs”

This is another way to say that someone passed away or was eliminated, especially when it’s someone you don’t like, like a villain in a book. For instance, you can say “Ele foi com os porcos” (“he went with the pigs”).

21. Muitos anos a virar frangos

Literal translation: “many years turning chickens”

The idea behind this Portuguese idiom is that someone’s an expert at something because they’ve spent so long doing it.

In Portugal, chicken is often grilled, so someone who’s been grilling chicken for a long time (turning it over on the grill) is an expert at it.

22. Pão pão queijo queijo

Literal translation: “bread bread cheese cheese”

If you’re in a restaurant, be careful you don’t say this too loud next to the waiter because they might bring you extra bread and cheese!

But in everyday life, this phrase is used to mean “it is what it is.”

23. Falar pelos cotovelos

Literal translation: “to speak by the elbows”

My husband would probably say I falo pelos cotovelos, meaning that I talk too much.

The Brazilian expression comes from the idea that when you’re talking with someone and they won’t let you get a word in, you touch their elbow to get their attention.

24. Estar feito ao bife

Literal translation: “to be done to the beef”

This expression is used when you encounter a problem that you don’t know how to solve.

25. Para inglês ver

Literal translation: “so the English can see it”

This idiom came about when Brazilian slave owners were supposed to set their slaves free after Brazil was recognized by Great Britain. Brazil passed a law stating their intentions to follow through but didn’t always do so.

Thus, the idiom para inglês ver, or “so the English can see it” was born. It’s used to mean “only for appearances” or “to show off.”

26. Ter macaquinhos na cabeça

Literal translation: “to have little monkeys inside your head”

The literal translation is such a weird image, isn’t it? This idiom refers to someone who has strange or illogical ideas.

27. Estar com a pulga atrás da orelha

Literal translation: “to have a flea behind your ear”

This idiom creates a nasty mental picture that might send shivers up your spine. Use it to mean that someone’s feeling suspicious.

28. Bicho de sete cabeças

Literal translation: “seven-headed beast”

This idiom is used similarly to the phrase in English “the very devil” or to refer to a huge complication.

For example, you might say, “Esse situação vai se-tornar difícil. (This situation is going to become difficult.) É um (It is a) bicho de sete cabeças.”

29. Atirar-se de cabeça

Literal translation: “to plunge head-first”

In English, we have an idiom “to plunge head-first,” which is an exact translation of this idiom in Portuguese. It means to go into something fully, without first really thinking about it.

30. Alimentar um burro a pão de ló

Literal translation: “to feed the donkey sponge cake”

Would you waste some delicious sponge cake on a donkey? Maybe if you really loved that donkey. But you’d probably rather eat the sponge cake yourself.

This funny Portuguese idiom means to treat someone well who doesn’t deserve it.

31. Burro velho não aprende línguas

Literal translation: “an old donkey doesn’t learn languages”

In other words, you can’t teach a dog new tricks. That’s the English version of this idiom, which implies that people are generally set in their ways.

32. Armar-se em carapau de corrida

Literal translation: “to be racing like a mackerel”

The mackerel isn’t seen as a very interesting fish, so the idiom is used to refer to someone who thinks he’s a big shot but is really a nobody. (Sorry, mackerel!)

33. Cão que ladra não morde

Literal translation: “dog that barks doesn’t bite”

Do you know the phrase “all bark but no bite?” This idiom is similar. It refers to someone who threatens but is harmless.

34. Amigos, amigos, negócios à parte

Literal translation: “friends, friends, business aside”

This is an easy one: It means don’t mix friendship with business.

35. Fia-te na Virgem e não corras

Literal translation: “trust the Virgin and don’t run”

In this case, “Virgin” refers to the Virgin Mary. It means that you should do something instead of waiting for a miracle.

This European idiom is said as a warning but in an ironic way. For instance, if someone’s in trouble and does nothing, then you say this phrase to them.

36. Estás a meter água

Literal translation: “you’re letting water in”

When someone is making a fool of themselves, this is what you’d say to them.

37. Pagar o pato

Literal translation: “to pay for the duck”

When you take the fall for something someone else does, you’re pagando o pato.

38. Pelo sim, pelo não

Literal translation: “by the yes, by the no”

Use this Portuguese idiom in place of the English phrase, “just in case.”

39. Não há bela sem senão

Literal translation: “there’s no beauty without an if”

You use this to say that there’s no such thing as perfection.

If you freak out about your hair looking bad, you might adopt this idiom to help you remember that perfect hair is impossible.

40. Não é a minha praia

Literal translation: “it’s not my beach”

To say, “it’s not my thing,” you can use this idiom.

41. Tomara-que-caia

Literal translation: “I hope it falls”

This is a pretty funny Brazilian Portuguese phrase. An “I hope it falls” is what you’d call a tube top or a strapless dress/shirt in Portuguese.

42. Descascar o abacaxi

Literal translation: “peel the pineapple”

This Portuguese idiom means “to solve a problem.” 

Can’t get past the prickly exterior of a pineapple to the juicy goodness inside? Just peel it! Problem solved.

43. Enfiar o pé na jaca

Literal translation: “to stick your foot in the breadfruit”

Breadfruit is a Brazilian fruit that’s very sticky. The idiom means “just go for it!”

When you’re on a diet but then meet up with friends at a rodizio de pizza (all-you-can-eat pizza restaurant), you might say, “Vou enfiar o pé na jaca hoje!” (“I’m going to go for it tonight!”)

44. Tempestade em copo d’agua

Literal translation: “a hurricane in a cup of water”

This idiom means that someone is making a big deal out of something that’s really a small issue. It’s similar to the English phrase “storm in a teacup.”

For example, your friend might be acting overdramatic to which you might say, “Para de fazer uma tempestade em copo d’agua!” (“Stop making a big deal out of nothing!”).

45. Dá Deus nozes a quem não tem dentes

Literal translation: “God gives nuts to those who don’t have teeth”

We all know someone who doesn’t make use of an opportunity they’re given—what a waste! This is the idiom to describe them.

46. João sem braço

Literal translation: “John without arms”

This idiom from Portugal comes from a time when Portugal was at war. When people lost limbs, they were excused from fighting. It’s used to refer to someone who’s pretending to be helpless to get out of something or to play dumb.

47. Engolir sapos

Literal translation: “to swallow frogs”

This idiom means “to bite one’s tongue.” You might say this to a friend who’s about to say something they shouldn’t.

48. Tirar o cavalinho da chuva

Literal translation: “to take the horse from the rain”

This is something you say in place of the English phrase, “Don’t count on it!”

The phrase originated from the days when people used horses as their main mode of transportation. If they were to stay the night at someone’s house, the host might say they could move their horse out of the rain and into a covered area.

Today, it’s used ironically. Maybe someone approaches you and presumptuously says, “You’re going rock climbing with me today,” but you hate rock climbing. You might respond with “Tirar o cavalinho da chuva!”

49. Matar dois coelhos com uma tacada só

Literal translation: “to kill two rabbits with just one shot”

This idiom is very similar to the English idiom “to kill two birds with one stone,” except in the Portuguese idiom, we’re hunting rabbits instead of birds.

Essentially, it means getting two things done with one action—like when you wash your dog in the tub and the bathroom also gets a thorough cleaning.

50. A galinha do vizinho sempre é mais gorda

Literal translation: “the neighbor’s chicken is always fatter”

This idiom has a similar sentiment to the English idiom, “The grass is always greener on the other side.”

You say this to a friend as a warning, reminding them to be happy with what they have rather than looking at what other people have.

 

This list of Portuguese idioms may be daunting, but you can learn them one by one. Focus on one at a time, and these 50 Portuguese idioms will have you sounding natural in no time!

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