Cheating is a national sport – 15/09/2021 – Sérgio Rodrigues

That hacking is a valued national sport, perhaps more than football, just look around to prove it. Of the people in positions of power you see from where you are, how many are finished pickaxes, from the wooden handle to the two ends of iron? However, there is a blind spot in the story of that word.

I’m not talking about the tool-pick, a feminine noun in the Portuguese language, but the noun of two genders, Brazilianism that means “a profiting person, who uses reprehensible means to get what he wants” (Houaiss). Insufficient definition, by the way.

I prefer the long formulation of the dictionary of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences (which is curious, given the Brazilian word): “A person who deceives others, who pretends to be something he is not, who pretends to know a subject when in reality it does not dominate; person who seeks to take advantage, using unlawful means”.

Now it does — it’s all up to the pickaxe, a plague of varied environments, but especially at ease in the official sphere of an “imbecile and bureaucratic Brazil”. The words in quotation marks are from the writer Lima Barreto (1881-1922), who created one of the greatest pickaxes in our literature in the short story “O Homem que Sabia Javanês”.

Full of debt, a guy named Castelo decides to take money from a half-defunct baron pretending to be a master of the Malay-Polynesian language of the island of Java, which he knows nothing about.

The national vulnerability to the pickax is so great that Castelo ends up cast in the position of medallion of the Republic, civic glory, with the right to a nice public job and an invitation to lunch with the president. Sound familiar?

The importance of hacking in our milieu makes the gap about the word in etymological studies even stranger. Nobody knows for sure how the pickaxe was made, that is, how the sense of an instrument came from that of a rogue.

I know only one scholar who tries to do this, and it doesn’t seem like a very good attempt. Silveira Bueno (1898-1989) believes that this is a simple metaphor, based on the idea that the pickaxe “gets out in everything to dig for money, jobs”. It would be, thus, a synonym for digger, which has among its meanings that of crook.

That the pickaxe ended up having a metaphorical use seems certain, but I find it strange that the probable influence of a term that, today in rare use, has already circulated with a very similar meaning is not considered: picaro.

A word born in Spanish, at first picaro meant “bad guy with a bad life”. He ended up naming a type of cunning person who, poor and without resources, uses cunning to get his survival out of the scam, the coup, the leg passed on people of superior social position.

Picaro landed in Portuguese in the early 17th century and, as in the original language, proved influential to the point of naming a successful literary genre — the picaresque, centered on the comic adventures of the picaros.

The sonic resemblance between the rogue and the pickaxe may not be a coincidence. The Catalan Joan Corominas (1905-1997) considers it likely that the cheater’s name, like that of the instrument, comes from the verb “picar” — an action performed by people of his class, such as kitchen assistants.

Coincidence or more than that in the case of the instrument, the fact is that the correspondences of form and meaning between the picaro and the picareta make this association, at the very least, a weighty hypothesis for the origin of Brazilianism.

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