Essay: From Portingale to ‘Portugee’ — By George Monteiro
Posted on 22 April 2014.
“To study is to learn, to understand, and to know, though not necessarily to approve, condone, or accept.”
It is in the spirit of this anonymous, undated motto that the following essay was undertaken and is now offered. — G.M.
One need not consult Abraham Roback’s Dictionary of International Slurs, published in 1944 during World War II, to recognize that the most compact and thus most efficient form for the ethnic or racial slur, if you will, is the “name”; thus you have “Cink,” “Jap,” “Frog,” “Kraut,” “Kike,” “Spick,” and so on. In Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) Stanley Kowalski will set straight Blanche Dubois, his sister-in-law, when she refers to Polish people as “Polacks” by instructing her that people from Poland are “Poles,” not “Polacks.” Italians, however, are the beneficiaries of several slurring names, such as “Wop,” “Dago,” “Guinea,” and “Guido,” among others. Of course, the Portuguese have not been exempt from such slurring. They have been baptized with the insulting name “Portugee,” in its varied spellings, each of which employs the vowel signifying the writer’s choice or ignorance. Yet, as its history of usage show, the word was not always used to insult or injure, especially in its beginnings.
Vagrancy is a crime unknown in the Azores, it being the natural habit of the population.
Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (1872);
San Francisco Evening Bulletin (1872)
Of one very noticeable feature of the present commercial convulsion, we really have some reason to be, as a people, ashamed. After vaunting, for years, in the face of all mankind, our wonderful ‘practical sense,’ and our unparalleled cleverness in regard to things material, we no sooner find ourselves in the midst of a financial storm, than we lose our wits and set up a confused outcry of incoherent exclamations, which would disgrace a Portuguese crew driving on a lee shore. Nobody can be found to take or to hold the helm…
New York Times (1857)
The Spaniards and Portuguese have, more perhaps than any other people, been the subjects of that John Bull-ish kind of prejudice which looks upon all foreigners as ‘outland dogs,’ whom the honour of their own country requires them to despise and misrepresent.
Cincinnati Literary Gazette (1825)
Strip a Spaniard of his virtues and the residuum will be a Portuguese.
Hartford Courant (1900)
The word ’Gee (g hard) is an abbreviation, by seamen, of Portuguee, the corrupt
form of Portuguese.
Herman Melville, Harper’s Monthly (1856).
The Captain says, “Curs don’t grow out of lions’ cubs; you can’t turn a white boy into a nigger; and a Portugee, as every sailor knows, is a Portugee by birth.”
Walter Besant and W. J. Rice, By Celia’s Arbor (1878)
The swarthy skins and dark, glancing eyes that betokened the Portuguese or the “greaser” were there in plenty, while here and there throughout the crowd could be seen the heavier forms and duller features of the German and Swede.
Viola Bruce, Overland Monthly (1899)
“‘Look at all the children!’” Saxon cried. ‘School’s letting out. And nearly all are Portuguese, Billy, not Porchugeeze.’”
Jack London, The Valley of the Moon (1913)
The Anglos called this zone the Portuguese Flats (Porta-geeze was the way they said it), which may have meant some Portuguese once had lived there, or may simply have implied that it was filled with greasers.
Richard Ben Cramer, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life (2000)
One Frenchman will beat two Portugee / And one Englishman will beat all three.
English Sailor’s Phrase (1824)
The Captain of a whaler to his mutinous crew: “I haven’t a bit of confidence in Portugese. Good wages and kind treatment have no effect on them. They are born cutthroats. There is not a man of you that would not disgrace a yellow dog by his company.’
Biloxi Herald (1892)
“Even if I placarded my name on my back and what I did, ’taint likely I’d have to face a grand jury for running a knife into a mongrel Portuguee way out in the South Sea a score of years ago.”
Louis Backe, The Ebbing of the Tide (1896)
“If the Bermuda farmer is a ‘Portagee’ (which he frequently is when he’s not a Saban or a Turks Islander, or a colored person), when the weeding takes place, all the family from the cradle to the grave assist at the ceremonial.”
Hanna Rion, The Craftsman (1911)
“I have sailed the high seas, touched the coast of Africa, went up the Amazon when I was a cabin boy, talked with frog-eaters, Portogees, Lascars, greasers, spiggoties and one-eyed Swede captains…”
Richard Washburn Child, Hampton Magazine (1912)
“‘Yup, I don’t care much for whale’s meat… fer eatin’ purposes… it’s almost as bad as jellyfishes which no animal wil eat… except a Portyguese, and they goes bughouse about ’em…
Glenn H. Mullin, Adventures of a Scholar Tramp (1925)
“We once discussed which were the cleanest troops in trenches, taken by nationalities. We agreed on a descending-order list like this: English and German Protestants, Northern Irish, Welsh and Canadians; Irish and German Catholics; Scots, with certain higher-ranking exceptions; Mohammedan Indians; Algerians; Portuguese; Belgians; French. We put the Belgians and French there for spite; they could not have been dirtier than the Algerians and the Portuguese.”
Robert Graves, Good-bye to All That (1929)
The community is eminently Portuguese—that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy and lazy.
Mark Twain (1867)
Ev’ry time I write some Portugee
The wise ginks start to kinnin’ me.
Don’t matter if ’taint the best there be.
They all wanter stop a-kiddin’ me.
I could slip you many a wheeze
If I’d be let do it in Portugeez.
So tell them guys they’d better cheese
Diggin’ into my Portugeez.
Chicago Daily Tribune (1912)
“The Buffalo Express in a ribald spirit remarks: ‘Judging from the way Dom Pedro scooted through Chicago, we fancy he had heard of King Kalakaua’s experience with Mayor Colvin and the Board of trade. There’s no telling what Colvin would have said, but the playful young men of the Board of trade would undoubtedly have hailed him as ‘Old Brazil-Nuts,’ and have urged him to ‘pull down his vest,’ in the choicest Portugee.”
Chicago Daily Tribune (1876)
“The White Dawn follows the adventures of three American whalers trapped on Canada’s frozen Baffin Island after their boat capsizes and their companions drown. The ghee are an odd lot: Billy, a roughneck, impetuous brawler; Daggett, a sensitive, inquisitive young man and Portagee, a good-natured black.”
Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune (1974).
“Yeah, maybe you say it wrong because you’re a Portagee.”
“Not wrong,” insisted Paul. “Just different. And you’re not supposed to say ‘Portagee.’ It’s not nice.”
Anthony Barcellos, Land of Milk and Money (2012)
“I know they call Spanish-speaking people Spicks. But what do you call the Portuguese?”—“We call them Pricks, of course.”
Anonymous (Rhode Island, 1968).
His only visitors were a group of violent Portugese fishermen wh, drunk and predatory, began now systematically to terrorize him. Out of an absolutely silent night… they would come thundering along the wharf at two in the morning shouting his name, demanding money, demanding to be let in, ehlling for booty, clothing, drink, his very person. They would pound on the flimsy walls and curse him with laughter, calling him names he didn’t dare listen to or think of the meaning of.
Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend (1944)
New York newspapers refer, in 1820, to “Henry Portugee” (Schenectady), in 1883, to “William A. Portugee” (Kingston), and, in 1939, and to “Eliza E. Portugee” (Kingston).
At a time when many American newspapers featured ethnic and racial slurs aimed at the American Indian and the European and Asian emigrant, the Portuguese, too, came in for their share of acrimonious ridicule and sometimes virulent ridicule. Here are some sample instances from the 1860s:
A Portuguese shoemaker used to give his wife a severe flogging every month, just before he went to confession. On being asked the reason of this proceeding, he replied that having a poor memory, he took this method of refreshing it, as his wife, while under the castigation, was sure to remind him of all his sins.
The Constitution [Middletown, Connecticut] (1865)
A Portuguese mayor enumerated as one of the marks by which the body of a drowned man might be identified, “a marked impediment in his speech.”
Jamestown Journal [New York], (1868)
“At the time when the Jews in Portugal were used for fuel on the festive occasions which, in the language of that country, were called Autos da Fe, or acts of faith, a poor Jew was led through the streets of Lisbon, to be burned at the stake, followed as he went by a numerous rabble, all eager for the sport, and impatient for the kindling of the pile. Fearing, however, lest they should be balked of their amusement by a recantation of his errors, and a declaration of his conversion to Christianity, some one of the crowd would from time to time come close up to the Jew, and, by way of encouraging him to persevere in his faith, would clap him on the back and say, “Be firm, Moses—be firm, Moses.”
The Liberator [Boston, Massachusetts], (1865)
Take the Elizabethans. In the time of the first Queen Elizabeth her subjects knew the name of the country running down the western side of the Iberian Peninsula as Portingal and its denizens as Portingales, terms that over time turned into Portugal for the nation, Portuguese for its inhabitants. The latter soon became problematic to some, who seemed unable to negotiate the fact that the word “Portuguese” was both singular and plural, with the upshot being, by some sort of back formation, that while Portuguese retained its value as a plural, Portugee became the colloquial term for the singular. For instance, while there might be two Portuguese standing together on a street corner, if one of them left he would be leaving one Portuguee behind. Inevitably, the second “u” dropped out of the spelling (the American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, who spent nearly two decades living in Brazil, invariably spelled the word “Portugese”), and the term was spelled in various ways, running through all the vowels and then some—Port(a)gee, Port(e)gee, Port(i)gee, Port(o)gee, Port(u)gee, Port(y)gee, Porteg(h)ee (as in Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit) and Portag(h)ee. And to form the plural of this colloquial singular all that was necessary, naturally, was the addition of the final “s.” What is important to note is that there is no evidence to indicate that the word was first coined as a pejorative term, one meant to slur or insult natives of Portugal. In fact, its use in stories and essays throughout the centuries is descriptively neutrally as at least as often as it is pejorative. Of pertinence here is the following paragraph, published in the Dallas Morning News in 1910:
“Portuguese” is one of those words which have been a constant pitfall to our English tendency toward false singulars and plurals, says the London Chronicle. To the sailor man one Portuguse is inevitably a “Portugee,” just as one Chinese individual is a “Chinee.” And before the end of the seventeenth century our forefathers seem to have been unable to speak of several Portuguese at once other than as “Portugeses” or “Poruguezes.” Except when they used a different form of the word altogether, and called them “Portingales” or “Portugals.” It is rather a pity that “Portingale” has not survived so that neither a single nor plural Portuguese should worry the English.
“Portingale” (with or without the “e” at the end) has a long English life. “Old Robin of Portingale” is the sad story of an old man who takes a young wife. It survives as a Child ballad. Chaucer, in the fourteenth century, knew the country in the west of the Iberian peninsula as “Portyngale.” Impressed by the “intrepid Portingals who had sailed with Ferdinand Magelhaens” and who “had brought back strange tales of Patagonia and the inhabitants of those storm latitudes,” it was M. D. Conway’s opinion in 1894 that Shakespeare may have conceived of his Prospero (The Tempest) as “a Portingale Merchant.” It was recalled by John Scribner Jenness in 1873 that well before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts “Portingals”—Portuguese fishing vessels—visited the Isles of Shoals off the coast of what is now called Maine. By 1824, however, when “Portingale” shows up in his poem Don Juan (xvi, 14), Lord Byron’s use of the word can be described only as quaint or antiquarian, although articles about the Elizabethan Age continued to quote Holinshed, the sixteenth-century chronicler on “delicates ‘wherein the sweet hand of the sea-faring Portingale is not wanting.’” Rare exceptions were Dorothea L. Ramsbottom, who, in letters to The Albion in the 1820s and 30s, insisted, somewhat anachronistically, on referring to Portugal as “Portingal.” Bravely quixotic, then, is the only way one can describe the effort in 1981 to resurrect the term by the Fall River-born poet, Thomas J. Braga, who chose to call his first, saudoso book of poems, Portingales.
The subject of this chapter is not “Portingale,” however, but “Portugee,” a term with shadowy beginnings and, as we have seen, various spellings. One can only speculate that, at least at first, “Portugee” was based on a misunderstanding of the term Portuguese. In the Portuguese language “Portugueses” is the plural for “Português”; in English, however, the term “Portuguese” serves as both singular and plural, though there is evidence that, the Portuguese originals were, rather awkwardly, translated directly into English. In 1708 the translator of Bartholomeu Leonardo de Argensola’s History of the Discovery and Conquest of the Molucco and Philippine Islands valiantly, if clumsily, referred to the “Portugueses.”
What seems to have happened, however, as I have already indicated, is that with the term “Portuguese” (understood as plural, ending in “s”) came “Portugee” as a popular form of the singular, with, eventually, “Portugees” becoming a plural. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “Portagee” represents “a spurious ‘singular’ form of ‘Portuguese’” (adjective and noun), “this being regarded as a plural.” In due course, however, its common, pejorative function—both as singular and plural—was to express disdain for the Portuguese.
“I read that novel—The Portygee—and there wasn’t one Portuguese native or Portuguese descendant in the whole book,” a colleague once complained. Published in 1920, The Portygee is the work of Joseph C. Lincoln (1870-1944), a prolific writer of fiction with a Cape Cod setting. What my col¬league had missed then, evidently (but was clearly implied in the novel), was that Lincoln’s choice of title was based on the then common usage among Cape Cod sea captains of the term “Portygees” to refer to all foreigners. Since for Lincoln the term was generic, as he indicates in the dust-jacket blurb, he could use it precisely without worrying about its ultimate derivation. As a generic term for “foreigner,” moreover, Portygee was even broader in coverage than the term Dago, which several decades ago referred commonly not only to the Italians but to the other southern Europeans as well, particularly the Spanish and Portuguese. It was “a crowd of ‘Dagos’” that English visitors to Madeira encountered when they went ashore, according to an English ship’s chaplain in 1872. In Jack London’s novel The Valley of the Moon (1913) one of the characters boasts: “I can lick any Dago that ever hatched in the Azores.” And in W. H. Macy’s “Leaves from the Arethusa’s Log” (1868), the terms Portuguese and Dago are used interchangeably, the latter mainly in the dialogue. Certainly a high point in the use of the term came when in the1920s the noted American writer, Malcolm Cowley, referred honorifically to the sacrificed Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, as “dago Christs.”
It is clear that, like the word “Dago,” “Portugee” often lost its denotative specificity as a term employed exclusively for the Portuguese. So that, at times, “Portugee” came to be used to refer to any foreigner or outsider subject to suspicion, derision, disdain, and inferior status precisely because of his “outsiderness.” It was not only the word “Portugee” that was used to “put down the Portuguese,” however. “Dagos” was also so employed. One observer, writing in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1852, notes:
Monuments of Portuguese glory stand prominently on almost every chart or map of any portion of the southern hemisphere, in the Portuguese names borne by islands, capes, coasts, towns or cities; but neither these names, nor those of the Albuquerques, of Vasco de Gama, who led the way round the Cape of Good Hope; of Magellan, whose starry clouds attract the gaze of the southern voyager, whose vessel was the first to circumnavigate the earth; nor Os Lusíadas, the epic of Camoens; nor the poesias of Antonio Ferreira have been enough to secure respectful consideration for the Portuguese by Anglo-Saxons of the present day. Whether in Europe, Africa, India, China, or Brazil, members of the mass of the Anglo-Saxon race, when visiting Portuguese settlements, speak of the inhabitants among themselves under the name of Daygoes, “Diogos” that is—Jimmies, somewhat contemptuously used, as the epithet ‘Yankee,’ or ‘Jonathan,’ was once freely applied to all Americans by the English, the term Yankee is not now very frequently employed in that sense.
More commonly, however, “Dago” was used to include the members of several different ethnic groups. In the sporting journal Forest and Stream in 1894, for instance, we read: “The occupants this morning [on the wharf in Biloxi] were a couple of dagos, as all Italians, Sicilians, Spanish, Portuguese, and Austrians are indiscriminately called hereabouts, who were dozing in the sunshine.” In Los Angeles in 1908, we read of complaints in Forest and Stream of “the market seiners, mostly Portuguese and other ‘Dagoes,’” who “have made sad havoc with the alongshore fishing by destroying the young of corbina, yellowfins, croakers and other breaker-loving varieties wholesale.”
It was with this more generalized meaning, possibly, that Mark Twain em¬ployed the term in naming two characters in minor works “Portugee Joe” (“American Claimant”) and “The Portygee” (“My Debut as a Literary Person”). It is unlikely, however, that it is with this broader reference that the servant Abel Stebbins employs the term in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s novel Elsie Venner (1861) when he voices suspicion, “I can’t help mistrustin’ them Portagee-lookin’ fellahs.” The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith employs the term “Portugee” as a pejorative in a letter from Illinois, in 1857, where Portuguese from Madeira had settled earlier in the decade. When the novelist Henry James employs a variant of the term in the novel The Ambassadors (1903), moreover, there can be no mistake. “I think I make out a ‘Portagee,’” one of his char-acters says, referring, seemingly and rather casually, not simply to a native of Portugal but, probably, to a Sephardic Jew.
In addition to the examples from Mark Twain and Holmes, American writing offers a wealth of evidence of the presence of the term “Portugee” in the culture. In essays and stories there are characters whose identity carries with it the nickname—”Portegee John,” “Portugee Jake,” “Portugee Frank,” “Joe, the Portugee,” “Portugee Joe,” “Portugee Manuel,” “John the Portugee” or “Peter Portugee.” A sailor out of Saybrook, Connecticut, one who has seen Portugal, might be called “Portagee Jack”; and in Fort Lee, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, there was a legend, with the ruins of a house to lend it credence, about one “Moll Portagee” (or “Portuguese Moll”). And, of course, there was the western territory’s John “Portugee” Phillips—an Azorean emigrant born on the island of Pico—who became famous for having made the long and dangerous “ride to Fort Laramie” to report on “the Fetterman disaster” perpetrated by warring Indians in 1866. That “Portugee” may have been the accepted term to refer to the Portuguese in Wyoming is suggested in the statement, made in 1918 in the Wyoming State Tribune that the “sardines of the Portugee” are packed in tin-plate “made in America.”
Other figures were known only as “Portugee,” constituting, thereby, a type, in fiction, essay or news account, one not calling for further identification by given or family name. In Savannah, Georgia, in 1781, there was a slave named, simply, “Portagee.” It was “an unfortunate Portugee” who stayed behind at St. Urbes, reported an American sea captain in 1811. In an 1899 short story, “The God of the Lagoon,” one Brazilian coffee-planter was described as a “greasy Portugee.” Sometimes a seaman was worse than a “Portugee”—he was a coward—or sometimes it was the “Portugee” who was the coward or he was a thieving, murderous villain; at other times he was merely an “unprincipled” being, “a Loafer,” a “wild” one, or an incompetent. Of the last named, consider the views of the satisfied housewife living in “Blank Falls, Massachusetts,” in Mary Aash’s “A New England Letter” in 1906, whose account of her “Portugee” female help deserves quoting at some length:
I have tried having help and tried doing my own work, and have decided that it is cheaper to have help. I get a ‘green Portugee’ (as we call them) girl for two dollars a week. That is $104 a year. That sounds cheap to some that pay three or four dollars a week to help, but the patience that is needed to get on with these green girls can’t be calculated in dollars and cents. None of them know anything about cooking, most of them never saw a stove, and I have had some who had never seen stairs, and would only go up and down them on their hands and knees. Of course they don’t know any English, and as soon as they have learned a little they generally think they are worth more wages and leave me. I do almost all my own cooking, but the ‘Portugees’ are good at washing and ironing, first-rate scrubbers, and like to work in the garden, so that, having all the heavy work done, I can give my time to sewing… I do like my house to look well, and to keep things up, so every year I allow $35 for repairs. One year the money will go mostly for a new carpet for the sitting-room, and the next year for something else. It always all goes, for the ‘Portugees’ are great smashers.
Besides being ignorant, it was reported in 1902 in the Duluth News Tribune the “Portugee” was also superstitious. But occasionally, a “Portugee” was capable of being helpful, even if the captain of “a Portugee whaler” noted in “The Yarn of the Ancient Mariner” in 1895 was guilty of “a big Portugee swear.” Or a “Portugee” might act out of loyalty or heroism: one had manned a lighthouse under extremely dangerous conditions, for example, as reported in the Century Magazine in 1894. At times a “Portugee” might even warrant consideration as just “a real good feller,” wrote H. C. Bunner in the story “Crazy Wife’s Ship” in 1892. “Portugees” might even be praised and admired for their canniness, as were the Azoreans who, making the best of their indentured service in Hawaii, left for the city when their contracts were up, or he might be valued for his skill and dependability as a farmer or as a cook aboard ship, as reported in the New York Times in 1906. A “Portugee” might come from many different places: the island of Brava (as he does in Herman Melville’s sketch about the Capeverdean presence in American whaling) or Jamaica, Fayal or, more generally, the so-called Western Islands, as reported by Frank R. Stockton, “Pomona’s Bridal Trip” (1879), Sarah Orne Jewett, “The Foreigner” (1900), Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “The Haunted Window” (1867), and W. H. Bishop, “Fish and Men in the Maine Island” (1880).
It was rather late in the “Portugee” naming-game when John Steinbeck put forth his morally deficient “Portagee Joe” in Tortilla Flat (1935)—a characterization that enabled the actor Spencer Tracy, who had learned the term “Portugee” for his role as a Gloucester fisherman in “Captains Courageous” (1937), the film based on Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel, to bring it to perfection in the movie version of Steinbeck’s novel in 1942. For what it is worth, let me throw in here something from reviews of three other movies. In Primrose Path (1940) Ginger Rogers is faced with “‘Portugee’ rivals for the coveted attention of Joel McCrea”; in Deep Waters (1948) Caesar Romero is rather “silly” as “a light-hearted Portugee fisherman”; and in The World in His Arms (1973) Anthony Quinn plays a character, “called ‘Portugee,’” who smiles a lot and says things like “‘Heh, Heh, Heh, some day I keel you, Boston Man.’”
The term “Portugee” also appears as a modifier in ethnic references—not always pejoratively. The “Portuguese-man-of-war”—”any of several large marine organ¬isms, having long, stinging-tentacles hanging down from a bladderlike float”—finds itself referred to as “Portigee men-of-war”; while a magazine article in 1879 (“Bush-Life in Queensland”) gushes, “How charming to watch the minute ‘Portugee men-o’-war,’ each little bark cruising on its own account, and commissioned in the admiralty court of nature, in the name of nature’s God!” More amusing is the version of the expression “a la Portugaise” that appears in an advertisement in the New York Times in 1854 touting a book called Forecastle Yarns. One chapter is called “A Portugé Breakfast.” In the 1840s one “Dr. A. M. Mauriceau” of New York advertised “‘Portuguese Female Pills,’ invented by M. Desomeaux, M.D., of Lisbon, Portugal, which never fail in effecting a cure in all cases of irregularities, stoppages, or retention of the menses.”
There are, of course, many less neutral or poetic uses of “Portugee” (or “Portuguese”). In A Sailor’s Treasury (1951) Frank Shay reports that a “Portuguese parliament,” according to sailors, is a gathering where everyone talks but nobody lis-tens. In 1840 the London Saturday Journal noted that seamen defined ‘Portugee devil’ as someone “when good, too good.” When a person is confused and doesn’t know where to begin telling his story, he is said to be in a “Portuguese pigknot.” A “Portagee gate” is a lazy man’s version of a gate—a rope thrown over a stake, reports Charles Reis Felix in his 2004 autobiography (2004), the title of which employs the terms. “Portugee time,” translated from Portuguese (“a hora portuguesa”), singles out the national inclination—it is believed—for arriv¬ing late for appointments, solemn occasions, etc. “Portugee colonial” (or “Immigrant Chic”) refers to poorly-made “modern” furniture foisted on the unsuspecting re¬cent immigrant; and a goat is “a Portugee lawnmower” is. “Portagee overdrive” is the “gear” used in coasting downhill in neutral to save fuel. In California “Portugee lift” is a longshoreman’s way of criticizing anyone who avoids carrying his share of the load.
The social import of such combinations has not been gauged. Yet while “the derisive adjective, ei¬ther as a term or pattern is not important,” writes Ed Cray in Western Folklore in 1962, when “placed within a cultural con¬text,” it “may indicate qualitatively, long-held prejudices and cultural antagonisms.” This is manifestly so, for example, in the case of the “Portagee lift.” Heard on San Francisco docks for as long as anyone could remember, the term popped up in 1977 in a TV documentary about Eric Hoffer, a well-known writer at the time, who used the expression with no sense of its preju¬dicial nature. The “Portugee” longshoreman appears in references by the comic Johnny Carson, who pretended to insult a person in his au¬dience by describing him as having seen “his mother in a stag movie with five Portuguese longshoremen” (“Tonight Show,” May 22, 1979). Dick Mar¬tin told a similar joke involving an Aunt Martha who was delighted to find herself the only female ship¬wrecked with a boatload of Portuguese sailors (“Tim Conway Show,”’ April 19, 1980). Heading Steve Martin’s list of things to be thankful for on the eve of Thanksgiving Day in 1981 is “the Atlantic Ocean because without it a lot of Portuguese would be walking into my living room” (“My Best Show Ever,” November 25, 1981). Here the joke also reflects the xeno¬phobic feelings about immigration overall. On another occasion Martin presented as one of the “Bizarre Oddities of the World” a bit about the Portuguese dentist. Standing before two persons jumping up and down on a trampoline and speaking into a hand mike and wearing a trench coat, Martin reports: “If you are thinking of going to Portugal this year, be sure to have your cavities filled because here in Portugal they still prac¬tice the art of trampoline dentistry” (“Comedy is Not Pret¬ty,” January 23, 1982).
Then there is the “Portugee joke.” Let us end this survey, not with a bang but a few groans.
(1) There is a five-dollar bill on the ground. Three people come along—Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and a smart Portugee. Who, of the three, will get to it first? — Nobody. There is no Santa Claus, there is no Easter Bunny, and there is no such thing as a smart Portugee.
(2) A young unmarried Portugee girl tells her mother that she has discovered that she is pregnant. Her mother, concerned, asks hopefully (if desperately), “But are you sure the baby’s yours?”
(3) Want to sink a Portugee ship? Put it in water.
(4) Portugal is the only country in the world where a Portugee’s mistress is uglier than his wife.
(5) Hear about the new Portugee bank? You give them a toaster and they give you $500.
(6) “Put two Portygees on a rock in the ocean and they’ll be rich in ten days. How? By stealing from one another.”
(7) A Portuguese poet asks: “How do I love thee?” and concludes, in his last line, ‘I shall love thee better after death.’ He must have seen her in a bathing suit.” (Chicago Tribune, 1884)
(8) “Would you say ‘Portugee’ if you wanted to speak of one inhabitant of Portugal?” asked the golf editor, looking up from his work.
“You wouldn’t call one a Portuguese, would you?”
“Of course not,” said the tiddledy winks editor. “You’d call him a Portugoose.” (Chicago Tribune, 1896)
(9) What is the longest bridge in the world? The Braga Bridge—it links Portugal to the U. S. of A.
That same Massachusetts span over the Taunton River connecting Somerset with Fall River, is known to truckers as the “Portugee slide.”
Oddly, even when the intention has been to defend the Portuguese in America something will go awry. Consider the following paragraph culled from the Boston Transcript in 1910:
“Three men and a Portagee” was the description of his schooner’s crew by an old Cape Cod “cap’n,” the implication being that the “Portagee” was somewhat less than a full man. This provincial ignorance and conceit, however, have been pretty well worked out of the Cape Cod Yankees by this time. They now see all about them the best, it might almost be said the only, farming worthy of the name, as fitted to the peculiar situation—namely, the intensive cultivation of small fruits and early vegetables—done by the skilled and industrious Portuguese, although the “Bravos” may first have arrived on the New England coast as sailors and fishermen. In many of the old towns of the cape, and, indeed, all down along the coast to the farthest “harbors” of Maine, the best places in the town, and in some instances the larger part of the land, are now the proud and prospering possessions of the little dark people. Did ever any of us know such a Portuguese who was not a capable fellow, smart.., but smart in figure—if a woman, what the French mean by “chic”—neat in working clothes, even and neat handed in work, quick to apprehend and industrious and faithful in sticking to and finishing up a job?
There’s little need to italicize for emphasis the vestige of the “Portagee” epithet in the well-meaning description of the Portuguese as these “little dark people.”
Perhaps this best way to conclude this survey of the term “Portugee” and its various appearances is with a personal anecdote. Once while my cousin Manny Cabral was recovering from heart surgery, he was visited in the hospital by two of his non-Portuguese golfing buddies. I was witness to this exchange. As his friends were taking their leave, one of them said: “Well, we miss you out there on the golf course; so you better get better fast, Portugee.” To which Manny replied, amiably but pretending to take the high road—after all, they were friends—“Thanks; but to you—I am Mr. Portugee.”
Recent Posts by Professor George Monteiro
George Monteiro, professor emeritus of English and of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University, is the author or editor of books on Henry James, Henry Adams, Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson, Fernando Pessoa, and Luis de Camões, among others. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–São Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop, Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteen-Century Anglo-American Literature and Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After: A poetic Career Transformed. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot. More…