12 essential words for the Brazilian carnival
The carnival in Rio de Janeiro kicks off on 5 February, so the next five days will once again see the Brazilian city playing host to seductive rhythms and scantily clad dancers. For this occasion, we’ve dived into the colourful vocabulary of the Brazilian carnival and came up with a list of words that we think are essential in order to understand one of the world’s most famous spring events.
First, let’s take a closer look at the word carnival itself. The noun came into English via Italian carnevale, carnovale; in Portuguese the festival is called carnaval. Both the Italian and Portuguese words are related to medieval Latin carnelevārium, carnilevāria, and carnilevāmen. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), these appear to come from a Latin phrase carnem levāre or an Italian phrase carne levare, ‘to put away flesh (as food), to stop eating meat’ (although neither of these phrases are attested). Carnival marks the last days before the Christian fasting period of Lent.
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is of course the capital of the Brazilian carnival, but where does its name come from and what does it mean? Originally called São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro after a 3rd-century saint and also for Sebastian, King of Portugal from 1557 to 1578, Rio de Janeiro received its name from the Portuguese. When Portuguese colonialists sailed into the city on 1 January 1501, they mistook the bay through which they entered for the mouth of a river. The bay thus received the name ‘River of January’, which was then applied to the whole city. Today, Rio de Janeiro is often simply referred to as ‘Rio’.
Probably the first word that springs to mind when thinking about the Brazilian carnival is samba. A Portuguese term of African origin, it refers to both a dance as well as a type of music most typically associated with South American carnival traditions. Its etymology is uncertain.
Escolas de samba
The official parades are undoubtedly the biggest attraction at the Rio carnival. These desfiles de carnaval, as they are called in Portuguese, are made up of different groups called escolas de samba, ‘schools of samba’. Now, those are not, as their name might suggest, samba teaching institutions, but rather associations or social clubs.
The samba parades of Rio are competitions, so each escola de samba is judged on a number of categories, including music. The so called sambas-enredo are the musical numbers accompanying the parades. Meaning ‘samba story’ in English, every school has its own samba-enredo especially composed according to each year’s theme.
The name may already give it away, but the Sambódromo is the purpose-built avenue where all the big parades take place in Rio. In English, it can also be referred to as Sambadrome. Officially it is called Marquês de Sapucaí, named after Brazilian writer Cândido José de Araújo Viana.
Samba no pé
If you do happen to end up at the Sambódromo – and, for that matter, probably in any other place in Rio or Brazil during carnival season – you’d better have samba no pé. Literally translating to ‘samba foot’, the full expression in Portuguese is ‘ter samba no pé’ and means ‘to be a natural at dancing samba’.
Some people may need a little help with getting that samba no pé moving. Here a capeta could come in handy. The word literally means ‘devil’ and refers to a drink that is typical for carnival. A mix of condensed milk, cachaça, and powdered guaraná, this combination of sugar and caffeine should keep you awake during those long Brazilian days and nights.
Blocos de rua
The blocos de rua, blocos de carnaval, or simply blocos, are groups (literally ‘blocks’) that stage parades outside of the official celebrations happening at the desfiles de carnaval. They are the main attractions at the carnaval de rua – the street carnival that is especially popular outside of Rio in other parts of the country.
Abadá is the name of the colourful tops worn by the blocos. The word is of African origin brought to Brazil by African Muslims. It can also refer to the loose-fitting white trousers worn by players in capoeira and the white tunic worn by some African Muslims during prayers.
Especially in the northeast, carnival traditions can differ quite substantially from those of Rio de Janeiro. There, frevo is a popular type of music and dance that originated in the Recife area and is typically associated with the carnaval de rua. The word apparently derives from frever, which is a variant of the Portuguese ferver meaning ‘to boil’.
Finally, anyone taking part in carnival, in any capacity, may call themselves a folião. The word translates to reveller in English, and thus denotes ‘a person who is enjoying themselves in a lively and noisy way’.