What does ‘saudades’ really mean?

3 min

526 points

Very early on in my Portuguese studies, I came across the word saudades. From those Brazilians I’ve talked to, there seems to be a real sense of pride when it comes to this word…there was even performance during the Rio 2016 closing ceremony inspired by it. But what does it even mean?

Saudades in English

“It’s a word you don’t have in English,” my friend once pointed out during a conversation about it. “Saudades can’t be translated into English. It is like saying I miss you, but saudades is a much more intense feeling. I guess we need this word in Portuguese because Brazilians are very emotional people, so we need a word to express EXACTLY how we are feeling.”

That phrase hung in the air long enough for me to appreciate what he was insinuating. That European people are not very emotional so don’t need a word like this. He confirmed what I’d been thinking as he continued:

“We aren’t as cold as you Europeans, I think this is why you don’t have the word ‘saudades’.”

I always find it a little unsettling when Brazilians tell me that Europeans are ‘cold,’ as if we somehow lack emotions that other people have. For me, people without emotions are also known as psychopaths…which makes me wonder if Brazilians might genuinely have trouble recognising the difference between a Europeans and a psychopath!

So anyway, I went home and looked up the word saudades online and found this: Saudades is a melancholic longing or yearning – evoking a sense of loneliness and incompleteness. It differs from nostalgia in that one can feel saudades for something that may never have happened, whereas nostalgia is a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.

‘How interesting,’ I thought to myself. ‘What a beautiful word. Just imagine a lover romantically whispering it into your ear. ‘Oh Vlad, I have a sense of loneliness and incompleteness without you.’’ From that moment on I looked forward to hearing someone saying it to me.

But I soon learned that when it comes to people using the word ‘saudades’ in Brazil, all is not what it seems.

My First ‘Saudades’

So I’d gone to meet some friends for a few beers one Friday night. As I walked into the bar to where my friends were standing, I saw a girl I’d met just a couple of weeks before iamong them all.

“Gringo!” she screamed as I approached everyone, “saudades!” I barely knew the girl, yet there she was PUBLICLY telling me that she had a melancholic longing or yearning for me, a sense of loneliness and incompleteness. As she hugged me I was momentarily taken aback.

I mean, she seemed pleasant enough, but we barely knew each other! ‘How have I managed to make such a big impact on her life…without even realising it?’ I asked myself.

If I am being completely honest with you, I felt pretty awkward around her for the rest of the evening. But the longer I’ve been in Brazil, the more apparent it has become that this word is thrown around pretty flippantly.

Saudades isn’t just a highly emotional word – it can also be a way just to say ‘it’s been a while since we last met.’ This was totally the case last year when I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time.

“Saudades, Vladimiro!”

So a year ago I would sometimes hang out with this group of friends that included Diego. For a couple of months we’d often find ourselves in the same bars and clubs until, for whatever reason, this guy disappeared.

I heard a rumour that he’d started dating…or something unfortunate like that; so it wasn’t until a year or so later that I saw him again.

We were both at the same party in the center of Rio and as soon as I noticed him I was genuinely happy to see him again. “Diego!” I shouted out as he walked over to where I was standing. “It’s been such a long time!” We then hugged like long lost brothers, until he said the two words that changed everything.

“Saudades, Vladimiro!”

There was silence. You see, I’d never been called Vladimiro before. To borrow a line from the Ting Tings, “It’s not my name.”

Before I knew it, the smile was beginning to fall from my face.

“What did you say?” I asked, almost willing him to correct himself and call me Vlad. My real name.

“Saudades, Vladimiro” he repeated, only this time a little more sincerely.

Do you know what? I probably should have played along and pretended I really was called.

But two things stopped me.

1) I could see my friends sniggering as they listened in.

2) The word saudades had been used. I mean, how can you have a melancholic yearning or incompleteness for someone whose name you can’t quite remember!?!

So, this silence went on for a little too long as I considered what to say next. Then I just came out with it. “My name isn’t Vladimiro!” He flashed me a smile and immediately looked confused when it wasn’t returned. “I’m not Vladimiro!” I repeated (with a little more emotion than I was expecting as if he’d just touched a raw point – like maybe I had secretly wished to have been called Vladimiro for many years!)

He looked at me for a few seconds before conceding that he must have made a mistake.

“Sorry, I’ve forgotten. What is your name again?” Needless to say the conversation never really improved from this moment on, and after discovering that my name was Vlad, he made a pretty sharp exit. Nowadays he tends to just say “hi” when we bump into each other!

I learnt two valuable lessons from this conversation:

1) You shouldn’t always take Brazilians literally when they tell you they have saudades for you. Some of those who tell you this might not even know your name!

2) I think I should maybe have been called Vladimiro!

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526 points