Volume 16, No. 1 
January 2012

  Danilo Nogueira Kelli Semolini


Front Page

  Translation Journal

Sugar Loaf

Trip around the Box in Less than Thirteen Hundred Words

by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

aixa, roughly pronounced as KYE-shah, is the Portuguese word for “box.” It comes from Latin capsa, apparently a round box to keep round things, such as the rolls which did for books in ancient times. The Latin comes from the Greek, but we will let that go; we have plenty to do as things are. We cannot refrain, though, from remembering that a capsula, the Latin word for “small capsa” is a capsule.

Portuguese has a whole lot of suffixes that help create augmentatives and diminutives, that is, words that mean “big” or “small.”
As we were saying, caixa is a box. Portuguese has a whole lot of suffixes that help create augmentatives and diminutives, that is, words that mean “big” or “small.” For instance, caixão is a big box, caixinha is a small box and caixote is a mid-sized box. Well, not exactly, because caixão, besides being any big box, is also a coffin, which, in our opinion, makes a lot of sense. But we are Brazilian and may be biased.

Caixote, besides being mid-sized, is a low-quality box, because -ote is—or can be—a bit derogatory. A caixote, most of the time, is what is called a “case” in English. Of course, a “legal case” is not a caixote legal, but a “rough-hewn wooden box full of heads of lettuce” of the type used in open air markets is a caixote de pés de alface. Alface is “lettuce”; is foot; and yet a pé de alface is a “head of lettuce.” And here we are, digressing again. Let’s go back to the boxes, shall we?

Portuguese suffixes can be combined in a myriad of fascinating ways. For instance, there is caixãozinho, which as a “small big box,” or a “small coffin”—the type used to bury children. Caixotinho is a small caixote, but corte caixotinho, which literally means “rough-hewn mid-sized box cut” is what is sometimes referred to as “Scarne’s cut,” a way of cutting a deck of cards by pulling out a few cards from the middle of the stack and placing them back on top of it. A caixotim, literally a “small middle-sized rough-hewn box” which cannot be classified as a caixotinho (this is becoming a bit complex, now) is a section of a typographer’s case. Caixa alta means “upper case” and caixa baixa means “lower case.”

Not all suffixes denote size, of course. A caixotaria is a place where caixotes are made. We do not think there is a specific word in English for that and hope you will never have to translate it. The same goes for caixoteiro, someone who makes caixotes.

Caixeiro is a term now falling into disuse, but still to be found in older texts and you never know what they will ask you to translate next. A caixeiro is a “sales clerk.” A caixeiro viajante is a “traveling salesperson.” Caixeirada is caixeiros as a whole, but has a derogatory tinge. Something like “sales clerks, that despicable lot.” Caixeiral, another term becoming rarer and rarer, means relating to sales clerks and traveling sales persons, and there used to be more than a clube caixeiral in commercial centers, principally in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. A clube caixeiral is a social club targeted at commerce employees. Or used to be.

In addition to suffixes, we have plenty of prefixes. For instance, encaixotar is to package something in caixotes. Encaixotador is someone who packs stuff into caixotes. Encapsular is to put inside a capsule.

Encaixar means put into boxes, but this a rare meaning. More often than not it means to fit, to adjust and can be applied to both things and people.Nossos objetivos se encaixam bem means something like “our objectives dovetail nicely.” Creio que J. vai se encaixar no perfil is something like “I believe J. will fit into the profile.” Encaixar also means holding a ball tightly in one’s arms, like a football goalkeeper. (WARNING TO AMERICANS IN GENERAL: “FOOTBALL,” which you prefer to call “SOCCER,” is a game played mainly with one’s feet and a football is spherical, like any decent law-abiding ball should be.)

Evidently, you can also combine prefixes: desencaixotar is to unpack from caixotes and desencaixar may mean to unpack from caixas, but, more often than not, it means “to disengage” (for instance, two dovetailing pieces wood).

Caixilho is another diminutive (we are fast running out of ways to describe the several diminutives, so we will just say this is another kind of diminutive) and means a “muntin” or a “sash rail.”

Back to the “normal grade.” Caixa in music is a “snare drum.”

There is an expression, caixa pregos, “nail box” which means “in a faraway place,” but it is a mistake for cacha pregos meaning “the place where the bramble shark can be fished with bare hands” and refers to a three-street village in the state of Bahia.

Caixa also has several meanings akin to English “cash,” inherited from Italian cassa, literally the box where merchants and bankers kept their money. Caixa is the cash register or the person in charge of operating it. It is also the cashbook. Caixa alta and caixa baixa in this sense mean, respectively, “cash-rich” and “cash-poor.”

We also have caixa dois, “box two,” the place for all funds received from under-the-counter transactions, which could be better translated as “unreported funds.”

A Caixa Econômica is a kind of government-controlled savings and loan association and pôr na caixa used to mean to make a deposit in one of such institutions which catered to the poor.

We almost forgot caixinha. It is a small-sized box, of course. A caixinha de joias is a small jewel box. However, diminutives in Portuguese are also used to imply that something is of good quality or appreciated and a caixinha may be of respectable size. In addition, a diminutive may be used as a sign of modesty: temos uma casinha na praia, literally “we have a small beach house,” may refer to an enormous luxury dwelling. Diminutives can also express contempt. Aquela mulherzinha, “that little woman” actually means “that despicable little woman.” We never said it would be easy, but, as you know, context rules.

Caixinha also means an informal savings and loan club run by the employees of a company.

Oh, lest we forget, caixinha often refers to a shoebox covered with fancy paper of the type used to wrap gifts and placed in a visible place in a simple snack bar where waiters deposit tips. In some places, the waiter, upon receiving a nice tip will shout caixinha! to let his colleagues know that you are not a tightwad and deserve special attention next time you honor them with your custom. In such cases, some other waiter will yell obrigado! which you will readily understand even if your Portuguese does not amount to much.

Incidentally, from this custom arose the use of caixinha as a tip, legal or not. A caixinha do fiscal, literally the “government inspector’s little box,” for instance, is a bribe.

At the end of the year certain people expect a caixinha de Natal, “a little Christmas box.” That includes, for example, postmen and garbage collectors. One of these days, if you live in a Brazilian city, specially a big one, there is a good chance garbage collectors will pass the street where you live, with their noisy truck loudly honking its horn and the crew will shout a caixinha do lixeiro at the top of their voices. While part of the crew will collect the garbage, as usual, two of them, wearing spotlessly clean uniforms, will ring bells and ask for their caixinha, collect it and wish you and your family a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

And, since we are at it, even if you are not a Christian (as we are not), allow us to wish you all the best and thank you for reading our articles.