Image: Disclosure / Santos FC


a conceptual metaphor

For many, Chico Buarque is the pelé of MPB; Antonio Candido, the pelé of literary criticism; Fernanda Montenegro, the skin of dramaturgy. In each of these examples, we see an interesting case of linguistic change, in which a proper name, nickname of the legendary player Edson Arantes do Nascimento, enters our vernacular — in a legal position, without the need for VAR.


the skin metaphor

But what is a conceptual metaphor? In general terms, the idea (defended by Lakoff and Johnson, from Cognitive Linguistics) is that we conceive abstract elements of reality based on our concrete, corporeal, material experience with the world.

In this process, we take a universe as a source domain, so that notions from this first context serve as a basis for the formation of another concept, in the target domain. An example: we take space as the source domain to conceive time as the target domain. Not only the way we talk about time, but the way we understand it comes from our material, corporeal, concrete relationship with space. The past tense is "back there", the future tense is "up ahead".

In the process of linguistic change in which the proper noun Pelé becomes a common noun, a conceptual metaphor occurs. Football is taken as the source domain, and, in this universe, the concrete element “Pelé” refers to exuberance, strength, splendor, technical quality and, above all, superiority. Then, in the chosen target domain, the same properties are attributed to another subject: by saying that Machado de Assis is the pelé of Brazilian literature, the superiority verified in the soccer domain is transferred to the literature domain. For a group of young students who had not yet come into contact with the Sorcerer, but who already knew the legendary King, the metaphor would be a discursive resource to show the dimension of the greatness of our greatest author.


A dictionary term?

Among specialists, it is already a consensus that the dictionary does not define whether a term “exists” or “does not exist”. Rather, the work of dictionaries can formally document the words that make up the vernacular of a community of speakers.

In the case of the common noun pelé, neither the main dictionaries nor the Vocabulary of the Brazilian Academy of Letters register the term. If you allow us a bet, however, it is a matter of time: it is a productive, recurrent term, which already integrates the Brazilian varieties of Portuguese. In short, a term worth mentioning.


Use with moderation

Finally, we remind you that calling someone Pelé is always liable to generate some controversy, given the exclusive character that the term has assumed. Is the pelé of MPB Chico or, say, Caetano? And in literary criticism, Candido or Costa Lima? Fernanda Montenegro or Ruth de Souza in dramaturgy? And in Brazilian literature is Machado de Assis or Guimarães Rosa? This last comparison is perhaps very difficult, as it exceeds the very concept of the conceptual metaphor pelé. Could it be that, in this case, Maradona, another genius who left us two years ago, would also have to be integrated into this list of football metaphors? Jokes aside, none of these questions has a unambiguous answer, despite our particular preferences. Only Pelé, the eternal, is the Pelé of football.

*Henry 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).

A first version of this text was published in the newspaper The Globe.


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