Professora Elizabeth and the Carnation Revolution

Most days, I’m happy if my Portuguese students retain enough from the one night a week I have with them to be able to speak to their grandparents. I hope that they remember how conjugation works for when they take other foreign languages. And maybe, if I’m lucky, I have a few that fall in love with the language like I did.

Yesterday was different. Yesterday, I terrified them. Then, I made them think.

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52 in 52: The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

I’m still trying to read more nonfiction in spite of my disastrous attempt at reading a memoir last week. So, I decided to spend the first week of the Trump Administration reading about the other thing we use to judge people on Facebook: grammar. Well, more like the idea of what “proper English” is, but grammar is a nice catch-all term for that sort of thing.

Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park isn’t a history of English; it’s a history of the rules of English. I’m pretty damn lawful good so I have a thing for learning about rules. However, the book isn’t dry at all. Lynch imbues a lot of humor into what could easily have been a humorless topic. Language nerds of all kinds should find this to be a fun read.

Each chapter stands on its own, covering things like Samuel Johnson trying to bring our chaotic language to heel and why English doesn’t have an academy to control it like French does. It made the book easy to pick up and put down over the course of my week.

Prescriptivists—lawful good grammarians like me who are sticklers for the rules—will enjoy learning about the origins of certain grammatical conventions. The prohibition on splitting infinitives? That comes from Latin. (So many of the rules you hated learning come from Latin.) Descriptivists—the chaotic good students of language who believe that language is defined by how people choose to use it—will take comfort in the fact that they’re probably on the right side of history.

But some things are sacred. If you can’t get they’re/their/there straight, I’m still going to judge you.

Previously in this series:

52 in 52: Mess

52 in 52: Wolf Hall

52 in 52: Go Set a Watchman

52 in 52: Wolf Hall

I’m a big fan of historical fiction set in the Tudor period. Phillipa Gregory and Jean Plaidy? I devoured their series set during the period like the delicious empty literary calories they are. I don’t just limit myself to books, either. The Tudors? I came for Jonathan Rhys Meyers (historically inaccurate in appearance but damn if he didn’t nail Henry VIII’s personality), stayed for Natalie Dormer’s Anne Boleyn before she reigned as Margery Tyrell, and then made it through the rest of the series because I am a completionist.

I’m not just Tudor humblebragging here. I’m presenting my credentials. Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is an amazing read—if you’re already deeply invested in this era. Otherwise, prepare to feel completely bewildered. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

The thing that makes Henry VIII’s court ripe for eternal fictional reinterpretation is that, more than most historical periods, it’s all about perspective. He went through a string of wives who met varying fates because his conscience urged him to, because he wanted a son to secure the succession after the bloodiness of the Wars of the Roses, or because he was a dirty old man who just wanted a hot young wife—depending on who you ask.

That’s what made The Other Boleyn Girl such a hit. There had been plenty of literary output favoring Team Katherine of Aragon or Team Anne Boleyn, but no one had written from the less-known Boleyn’s perspective.

Wolf Hall might be the home of Jane Seymour and her family (who barely appear enough to warrant top billing), but it’s written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the man who made Henry’s first annulment (Henry never actually got a divorce—he just got really good at pretending certain marriages never existed) happen. I’ve never seen the story from his perspective. He was always the brutal enforcer who got Henry’s dirty work done, no matter who was telling the story.


Not exactly the most warm and fuzzy looking fellow, right?

Like I mentioned before, this book can leave you lost if you’re not well acquainted with the cast of characters at Henry’s court. That’s because it just drops you into the action as Thomas, a commoner trying to make his way in a world of well-born schemers, becomes a player at Henry’s court. It follows his rise to power, first at Cardinal Wolsey’s side, then eventually as his own man, before ending with the execution of Thomas More.

However, it’s not written in the first person. You’re not seeing, “I, Thomas, think that…” Instead, Mantel throws around a lot of “he did this” and “he did that.” It’s as if you’re watching the events of the story from a perch on Cromwell’s shoulder. (It doesn’t help that most of the power players are men, making that constant “He” a slippery thing. Occasionally you get deeper glimpses into what Cromwell is thinking, but they’re always mediated through a third-person narration that never lets you feel completely comfortable with Cromwell.

That being said, by the time I finished the book, I went from having a mild distaste for Henry’s butcher to being completely in his corner. His story of an ambitious commoner who comes to court and amasses power for himself while making shit happen should have spoken to me ages ago, but because I always saw his narrative through the eyes of some highborn character or another, it was portrayed as a threatening thing. Bring Up the Bodies is the next book in the series, and I can’t wait to see what Cromwell does next… even if I know that he’ll meet a bloody end eventually. There’s also a PBS miniseries you can watch, instead.

No, you don’t get to complain to me about spoilers when I bring up historical events.

Previously in this series:

52 in 52: Go Set a Watchman

Dia de Portugal, Camões, e das Comunidades Portuguesas: Part 2


Luis de Camões wasn’t some poet scribbling down his musings from his ivory tower. He was a certified badass. He’s not winking at you; he lost his eye fighting the Moors in Ceuta! His military service also took him to Goa, and later he was offered a position in Macau. On his way back home to Portugal, he was shipwrecked near Cambodia. According to legend, Camões let his lover drown because he was using both hands to hold the only manuscript of Os Lusiadas, the Portuguese national epic, out of the water!

The name Os Lusiadas comes from Lusitania, the Roman province that more or less matches Portugal’s borders today. Portuguese still refer to themselves as Lusitanians. Luso- is the prefix used to denote a thing as being Portuguese, in the same way that Sino- is used for Chinese.


Check out the opening lines of Canto I:

As armas e os Barões assinalados
Que da Ocidental praia Lusitana
Por mares nunca de antes navegados
Passaram ainda além da Taprobana,
Em perigos e guerras esforçados
Mais do que prometia a força humana,
E entre gente remota edificaram
Novo Reino, que tanto sublimaram.

Translation by me, more literal than lyrical:

The arms and Heroes marked
That the western Lusitanian shore
By seas never before navigated
Yet passed beyond Taprobana,
Through dangers and grueling wars
More that what was promised by human strength,
And amongst remote peoples they built
A New Kingdom, a sublimation of both.

If that doesn’t sound familiar, check out the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid, translated from Latin by A.S. Kline:

I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate,
first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to
Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,
long suffering also in war, until he founded a city
and brought his gods to Latium: from that the Latin people
came, the lords of Alba Longa, the walls of noble Rome.
Muse, tell me the cause: how was she offended in her divinity,
how was she grieved, the Queen of Heaven, to drive a man,
noted for virtue, to endure such dangers, to face so many
trials? Can there be such anger in the minds of the gods?

The key difference between Os Lusiadas and the Aeneid is revealed in the opening line. Aeneas writes of “arms and the man” (emphasis mine). Os Lusiadas, on the other hand, speaks of “arms and heroes“. While the great Greek and Roman epics are about singular men, Os Lusiadas is the story of the Portuguese people as a whole. Their epic journey is the conquest of the seas and the founding of the Portuguese Empire, just as the Aeneid is the chronicle of Aeneas’s journey and his founding of the Roman Empire.

While Juno is Aeneas’s enemy and Venus is his patroness in the Aeneid, in Os Lusiadas the divine clash is between Neptune and Venus. She advocates for the Portuguese to Jupiter, while Neptune tries to defend his dominion over the seas. Considering that the Age of Discoveries is the only thing American school children learn about the Portuguese in school, I think we all know which side Jupiter chose.

The two epics are further paralleled by their structure. They both start in medias res. Aeneas arrives in Carthage and then tells Dido about how he got there. In Os Lusiadas, Vasco da Gama arrives on the east coast of Africa after rounding the Cape of Good Hope. There, the King of Mombas welcomes him and asks how da Gama and his crew arrived. Instead of telling his story, da Gama recounts Portugal’s history, and how it led to him and his historic voyage.

This democratization of the epic is why I think it’s a better example of a national epic than the Aeneid. Virgil makes his poem all about Aeneas because he’s trying to get in the good graces of Emperor Augustus. Camões, on the other hand, makes it about the Portuguese people who came before and after da Gama. It’s about the nation, not just one man.

The last canto of the poem describes da Gama and his men returning home, but not before a pit stop at Venus’ Isle of Love. Canto X is so steamy that it was censored out of the poem during the Estado Novo dictatorship! Okay, it’s really not that bad; dictators are just prudes. It’s a shame though, because the sea goddess Tethys (who also becomes da Gama’s lover) predicts the accomplishments of Portuguese explorers yet to come. Os Lusiadas was published about eighty years after da Gama’s journey, so Camões had the benefit of hindsight when writing those divine predictions.

He also had foresight. Portugal was reaching its peak as a world power when Camões finished Os Lusiadas, which ends with a warning to King Sebastian to maintain Portugal’s glory. Instead, the young, heirless, and allegedly mad king died fighting the Moors in Africa at the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, and Portugal fell into the hands of Sebastian’s closest relative, Phillip of Spain. Elizabethan scholars might know him as Bloody Mary Tudor’s husband. Portugal would remain a Spanish possession for eighty years, but would never return to her former glory.

The impact of Camões on the Portuguese language and psyche can’t be underestimated. He is to Portuguese what Shakespeare is to the English language. Portuguese is even called “a lingua de Camões” because it is his language. Every Portuguese author after him was inspired but him. His fingerprints are all over the Portuguese literature that came after him.He also wrote plays (they’re okay) and love poetry (surprisingly beautiful). I’ll leave you now with my favorite love poem of his:

Amor é fogo que arde sem se ver;
É ferida que dói e não se sente;
É um contentamento descontente
É dor que desatina sem doer;

É um não querer mais que bem querer;
É solitário andar por entre a gente;
É nunca contentar-se de contente;
É cuidar que se ganha em se perder;

É querer estar preso por vontade;
É servir a quem vence, o vencedor;
É ter com quem nos mata lealdade.

Mas como causar pode seu favor
Nos corações humanos amizade,
Se tão contrário a si é o mesmo amor?

My translation:

Love is the fire that burns unseen;
The wound that aches unfelt;
It’s a discontent contentment
The pain that maddens painlessly;

It’s not wanting more than to be wanted;
It’s solitude surrounded by people;
It’s never settling for contentment;
It’s care that is gained in the losing;

It’s wanting to be willfully imprisoned;
It’s serving who conquers, the conqueror;
It’s what kills us loyally.

But how could your favor cause
Human friendship in our hearts,
If love is so contrary to itself?

Dia de Portugal, Camões, e das Comunidades Portuguesas: Part 1

Once upon a time when I was attempting to blog about my summer studying in Portugal, I wrote about Dia de Portugal. Shoutout to my buddy Patrick for remembering my old blog and reminding me of that post and how much it means for me to share this day with people.

Unlike the Fourth of July, Dia de Portugal isn’t the anniversary of Portuguese independence. Portugal has a couple of days that you could call an independence day:

  • June 24, 1128: The Battle of São Mamede: Dom Alfonso Henriques beats his mother and her lover in battle, takes over the County of Portugal
  • July 26, 1139: Dom Alfonso Henriques acclaimed King of Portugal, because who wants to be a Count when you can be a King?
  • October 5, 1143: Kingdom of Castile and Leon (not Spain! Spain wouldn’t exist for a few hundred years!) recognize Portugal
  • May 13, 1179: Pope Alexander III recognizes Dom Alfonso Henriques as King of Portugal
  • December 1, 1640: Portugal, which had become part of the Spanish Hapsburg empire after the death of King Sebastian I, declares independence from Spain
  • April 25, 1974: Carnation Revolution, Estado Novo dictatorship overthrown

So, for those of you keeping score at home: Portugal is way older than Spain. It also is not part of Spain, though it was for eighty years that we don’t like to talk about. Now you know better, and you can never ask me if Portugal is a part of Spain again. Cool? Cool.

With all these choices, Portugal did something different. Portugal Day instead marks the death of Luis de Camões. He wrote Os Lusíadas, the Portuguese national epic. (Think the Portuguese version of Virgil’s Aeneid.) As if I wasn’t already proud of being Portuguese, the literature major part of me that will never die loves that Portugal celebrates itself not on the anniversary of a battle for independence, but in memory of a poet. For more about Camões, check out Part 2 of this post.

After 1974, the day was expanded to include the Portuguese communities abroad. As a Portuguese-American, this is my day, too! There are nearly 1.5 million Americans of Portuguese descent… which is only about 0.5% of the American population. I like to think we make up for it by being loud and proud of our immigrant heritage.

In spite of our small numbers, we impacted American culture more than you realize.  John Phillip Sousa? He might have written Stars and Stripes forever, but his father was Portuguese! Emeril Lagasse? BAM! His mom’s Portuguese. Steve Perry? Don’t Stop Believin’ that he’s one of my people, too. I could go on, but I’m starting to sound like the Wikipedia page on Portuguese-Americans. Yes, that’s a thing.