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Culture : Brazilians Get a Kick Out of Nicknames : Soccer players, doormen and presidents crave that informal touch. It's a way of life.

August 09, 1994|RON HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIO DE JANEIRO — "Where I'm from, everybody has a nickname," says Waldimiro Autran Dourado, a lawyer and author from the state of Minas Gerais. His is Waldo.

"That's true all over, particularly among working-class people," agrees Jorge Luiz Nascimento, a 52-year-old former police officer, now a Rio de Janeiro city administrator. Folks where he works call him Jorge Mamao (George Papaya).

How Dourado became Waldo and Nascimento was dubbed Papaya are long stories, but the short of it in Brazil is that almost everyone, from the president to the doorman, is addressed informally, either by the first name or a nickname.

It's part of the Brazilian culture, explains anthropologist Everardo Rocha.

"We're just a much more informal society, and that is particularly true when it comes to how we call each other," he says. Like all Brazilian professors, Rocha is called by his first name by his students, despite his doctoral degree.

"Public people like politicians try to keep contact and intimacy with the people who vote for them," the professor says. "Sometimes, if a politician is very important, people will call him by his whole name and also by his initial or by a nickname that is given to him as a tenderness."

Americans got a taste of the Brazilian peculiarity during the World Cup. While other players wore their last names on their jerseys, Brazil's team trotted on the field with nicknames and first names applied to theirs.

There was Dunga, for instance, whose moniker means Dopey, one of Snow White's seven dwarfs. And Branco, a key scorer as the Brazilian team moved to victory in Pasadena last month. His nickname means Whitey. Some of the players were known by diminutives: Bebeto for Roberto and Jorginho, or Little George. And Muller, for which there seems no explanation.

Probably nowhere is the relaxed, informal manner in which Brazilians address each other more apparent than the way they refer to their leaders.

Every day, newspapers and television newscasts refer to the president, many Cabinet members and legislators by their first names. Others are routinely quoted using their nicknames.

It's kind of like picking up a U.S. newspaper to read "Bill Considers Military Invasion of Haiti" or "Dick Negotiates Settlement to Los Angeles Bus Strike."

The same goes for the field of 10 candidates vying this year for president. One is Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the nation's former finance minister and architect of the country's new economic plan.

"But nobody calls him Cardoso," Rocha says. "He's Fernando Henrique."

Or he's just FHC in headlines and photo captions.

Challenging Cardoso is a former factory worker and labor leader named Luis Inacio da Silva. But nobody calls him Luis or Inacio or Da Silva.

"He's Lula to everybody," says political scientist Venicio de Lima. Lula is a boyhood nickname that has been Da Silva's moniker throughout his professional and personal life.

None of this is new in Brazilian politics. The man sworn in as the country's president in 1985, following two decades of military rule, was Jose Sarney, except that isn't really his name, even though heads of state, historians and his current colleagues in the Senate still refer to him as Sarney.

"His real name is Jose Ribamar," says the author Dourado, alias Waldo, who has written a number of books on Brazil's culture. "His father's name was Ney. He worked for a British streetcar company. As a sort of a joke, a manager there used to call his father 'Sir Ney' and people in the area picked it up, except 'sir' became 'sar.' "

Sarney is not alone. Take Congressman Chico Vigilante. The Chico is easy, a common nickname for Francisco. But Vigilante?

"His last name means watchman, but that's not his real name," says political scientist David Fleischer, a professor at the University of Brasilia. "He took that name when he was running for office because he used to be head of the watchman and bank guard union in Brasilia. Nobody around here even knows his real name."

Then there's former Congressman Pinga Fogo from Parana. Nobody knows his real name either. His moniker is one he adopted during his radio days when he hosted a popular show that recounted crime stories in gruesome, crusading detail. It means "Dropping fire."

Brazilians without a nickname are almost invariably known chiefly by their first name.

"It's not like in the United States where if you ask someone their name, they give you their complete name," says Rocha, the anthropologist. "Here, we say our first name and that's it."

Consequently, many are the Brazilians who know their neighbors, co-workers, friends--and even their lovers--only by their first name.

"I don't know the last names of most of my friends," says Silvana da Silva, a domestic. "People never say, and you just don't ask."

"In Brazil, the family name is not so important," says Jorge Antonio Barros, a hulking assistant city editor at the Jornal do Brasil known around the newsroom as Jorginho.

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