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Falcon Reese | Tongues Tied

Portuguese duct tape

Published: Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 02:02


A failure. An unmitigated, stupendous failure. When starting something at the last minute, those are definitely some words that could describe a potential end result. What else works? Barely viable. Merely adequate. Struggling for breath and purpose. So lacking in direction as to be utterly useless. Melodramatic.

Maybe the last one is just me.

Searching for the perfect word is often maddening. I am, in fact, starting this column at the last minute and am searching for the perfect word to describe what it will end up being — hence the histrionic word vomit above. Despite its well over 200,000 words, both in use and obsolete, English is often supremely unhelpful in that regard. I am therefore turning my nose up at it — Shakespeare can bite me — and looking to the world’s thousands of other languages for assistance.

Portuguese works. This column will be an example of “desenrascanço,” a Portuguese word that translates to “disentanglement.” The connotation of the word, though, goes far beyond needing a Boy Scout troop and the Army Corps of Engineers to untie a particularly stubborn knot. It refers to the ability to solve a problem at the last minute without any sort of knowledge, tools or otherwise discernible skill to do so. It is a problem solved through a stretch of unconventional imagination and a conspicuous lack of planning. Or, for the Richard Dean Anderson fans out there, it is to “MacGyver” a solution — that is, with duct tape and verve.

As you might guess, “desenrascanço” equates to neither a pretty nor a perfect solution. If it’s good enough, it’s “desenrascanço歮” There’s a picture floating around the Internet used to illustrate this: Three people are attempting to fix an air conditioner, but can’t reach it. Two of them, therefore, hold the third by his legs upside down from a window so that he can reconnect a valve or plug in some doohickey on said air conditioner. Did it work? It’s good enough! Did you drop him? It’s still good enough!

It is said that the Portuguese value “desenrascanço” as an integral part of their culture and as an admired virtue. Well, at least the Internet says they do. Barring actually speaking to a statistically significant population of Portuguese people, I’m not going to extrapolate to an entire country of people. But “desenrascanço is still taught at some Portuguese universities. And by “taught,” I mean that it’s part of traditional hazing rituals for upperclassmen to present freshmen with impossible problems to solve, and then subject them to public humiliation if they can’t.

Another — highly contested — example of Portuguese “desenrascanço” is that explorers from various nations in the 16th and 17th centuries would often bring along a Portuguese national on their voyages — they were said to be good with handling emergencies. Perhaps this was a precursor to the concept of “desenrascanço” I’m more inclined to think that the Portuguese skill and experience with navigation had something to do with the Pope giving Portugal bragging rights to literally half the world when he signed the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Whatever its position in Portuguese culture, “desenrascanço” is — perhaps not an admired, but certainly integral — aspect of this column. It’s slapped together at the last minute and held together with spit, prayers and just a dash of printer ink. And this and each column following it will be my personal attempt to find the world’s other “desenrascanço” as I forsake my native tongue and seek out those foreign words that perfectly express what we mean to say without ever possessing an adequate equivalent in English.

But for this column in particular, I wouldn’t encourage you to squint too closely at the page. The magic of “desenrascanço” loses its sparkle when you can see the duct tape. But please, admire the verve. 



Falcon Reese is a junior majoring in sociology. He can be reached at

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