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Linguistic changes occur in the meaning of terms

"I didn't leave the trash to lose to the dump!" In the midst of a heated discussion on the 21st edition of Big Brother Brasil, who stole the show was an uncommon term for most Brazilians, which, according to dictionaries, seemed to have been restricted to the distant past.

“What is basculho?”, asked astonished singer Pocah, a participant in the program who, even without knowing the meaning of the term, realized that she had just been offended by economist Gilberto José Nogueira Junior, who became better known as Gil do Vigor, another brother from the BBB. Moved by linguistic curiosity similar to that of the young woman, this is the question that, using various sources, we seek to answer.


The origins of the term: gender, race and class

Like all words in a language, “basculho” shapes the uses of the society where it was conceived. Checking them in this light is not uncommon; it is enough to recall magnificent works such as “The vocabulary of Indo-European institutions” by the Frenchman Émile Benveniste.

But, returning to our term, great dictionaries of the century. XIX – Antonio de MORAES Silva, Francisco Júlio CALDAS AULETE and DOMINGOS VIEIRA – already opposed two uses for this word, and the second seems to have been born from a metaphorization of the first. Moraes (1890) describes basculho/vasculho as follows: “Broom, or cloth that is attached to a very long handle, to remove dust, cobwebs, etc. from ceilings and high walls. § (Fig.) Maid almost always very young, poorly fed, dirty, and sometimes torn, to whom certain nurses send to do the most inferior tasks in the house, always scolding them, and inflicting unjust punishments on them.”.

The wording digression of the entry, typical of ancient dictionaries, appears to be cruel in today's eyes: the entry allows us to infer that women from disadvantaged social classes were not only assigned to demeaning domestic tasks, but also dehumanized by being confused with their object of work. . Through a metonymic process, the second meaning of the term emerges, according to which basculho no longer names the rustic broom, but the woman who works with it.

In addition to these dictionary meanings, speakers from Pernambuco attest to two other meanings for the term: in one of them, basculho is garbage itself (a possible metonymy derived from the object basculho) and, in another, something like “a low person, of little value” (perhaps by a kind of semantic distension of basculho as “created”).

It is worth remembering that, about a year ago, other discussions on entries took place in the public debate. In one of them, the singer Anitta questioned the dictionary Oxford for recording “boss” as “housewife” and “boss's wife”. In another, there was a regional use of the term “teacher”, used as “prostitute with which teenagers start their sexual life”. In both cases, the fever was blamed on the thermometer: the lexicographer (linguist who prepares dictionaries) records the entries; who makes them (and often appears in them as in a mirror) is society itself. In the case of “basculho”, the entries allow us to infer a society marked by gender, class and – apparently – race inequalities and prejudices.


Linguistic changes occur in the meaning of terms

It is not uncommon that, in processes of language change, the meaning of words is altered by the community of speakers. It may happen that a new generation of speakers capture a more salient aspect of meaning, leaving others in the background.

The term “villain” is an example of this: the derogatory view of “village dwellers” prevailed and the word, in contemporary Brazilian Portuguese, is practically restricted to the meaning of “evildoer”. Most likely, you, the reader, have never attributed any real estate connotations to the term when referring to the villain of a book, a movie, or a series – which certainly does not reflect any social insensitivity on your part.

Considering this process of creating new meanings for words, it would at least be reductive to “cancel” this use of “basculho”. Without diminishing the horror with which the origins of the term are associated, one cannot demand that every speaker be a philologist. Even more: it cannot be inferred from the use of the term that there is a sexist or classist intention in the speaker.

Restricted to the Big Brother episode, the speaker Gil knows the term at a stage of linguistic change in which the prejudiced connotation no longer seems to be active. Thinking about later uses, inspired by the show (as seen on social networks after the episode), the same can be said: those who adopted “basculho” as “someone low, of little value” did not find in the term the prejudiced connotation of its origin.

With this, we are by no means suggesting that the origin and history of words should be ignored. First, we remind you that the language is alive and that the speakers act daily to build their history – including in the Big Brother.


Linguistic diversity and intangible heritage

Despite all the questions that the media experience inspired by the work of George Orwell should raise, it is still interesting how at least part of the Brazilian linguistic diversity paraded in the 21st edition of the so-called “reality”. With participants from different regions of the country, it is clear in the program how imprecise the expression “Brazilian variety” is, as if there was a single way of speaking typical of the country.

The various groups that study linguistic variation in Brazil – among them, we highlight the Norma Linguística Urbana Culta (NURC), the Brazilian Portuguese History Project (PHPB) and the Project Strands of Popular Portuguese of the State of Bahia (Strands) – have already have been studying and registering, for decades, how our Portuguese language is wide, varied and diverse. More than that: his works have been fundamental to show that, if something enriches the language, it is not simply mastering the standard norm (indisputably important), but above all the expansion of knowledge about our valuable linguistic diversity.

*Henrique Santos Braga He holds a PhD in Philology and Portuguese Language from USP.

*Marcelo Modolo is professor of philology at the University of São Paulo (USP).

Extended version of article published in Journal of USP.


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