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IN THE MIDDLE OF THE 19th century, a relatively unknown author named Pedro Carolino rapidly gained intercontinental popularity over a small Portuguese-to-English phrasebook. English as She Is Spoke (or O novo guia da conversação em portuguez e inglez) was originally intended to help Portuguese speakers dabble in the English tongue, but was penned by a man who spoke little to no English himself. And, instead of helping Portuguese speakers learn a second language, it became a cult classic for fans of inept and unintentional humor.

It quickly gained notoriety among English speakers, including author Mark Twain, who wrote the introduction for the first English edition, published in 1883. Twain expressed his approval of the book, saying “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.” 

It is presumed that Carolino wrote the book through the aid of a Portuguese-to-French dictionary and a French-to-English dictionary, using the former for an initial translation of a word or phrase from Portuguese, and the latter to convert it from French into English. The result, of course, is a mishmash of cloudy gibberish.

Perhaps the most notorious section of the book is an appropriately named chapter entitled “Idiotisms and Proverbs,” which again features phrases that vary between barely understandable and completely nonsensical. Examples of Carolino’s twice-translated proverbs include: “it is better be single as a bad company”; “there is no better sauce who the appetite”; and simply “That not says a word, consent”.

The book opens with a preface written in a peculiar style of English. It details the book’s intended audience, stating that it “may be worth the acceptation of the studious persons, and especially of the Youth, of which we dedicate him particularly.” Perhaps predictably, English as She Is Spoke did not become popular among Portuguese-speaking students. In fact, it was never published in Portugal, although it did find an audience 133 years later in Brazil, when it was released as a comedy title.

Adaptado de LEIGHTY-PHILLIPS, Tucker. How a Portuguese-to-English Phrasebook became a cult comedy sensation. In: Atlas Obscura (online). 29 jun. 2016. Disponível em www.atlasobscura.com 

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