Pelé in the dictionary – 05/26/2023 – Thaís Nicoleti

Pelé in the dictionary – 05/26/2023 – Thaís Nicoleti

Recently, the dictionary “Michaelis” decided to include among its entries the name Pelé, nickname of the greatest football player of all time, who died in December 2022. “Pelé”, now spelled with a lowercase initial, becomes part of the lexicon of the work as a common noun, synonymous with individual “out of the ordinary, […] which by virtue of its quality, value or superiority cannot be equaled to anything or anyone”, and as an adjective, equivalent to “unique”, “incomparable”, “exceptional”.

One can consider the inclusion of the term in the dictionary more than an individual homage to the “king of football”, since Pelé, by becoming famous in the sport that most characterizes our country, constituting a true trait of our cultural identity, represents Brazil. It is no coincidence that our immense territory is known as “the country of football”, where “football-art” is practiced, a typically Brazilian style of play, whose icon is Pelé himself, inspiration for past and future generations. Brazil, football and Pelé are mixed in the imagination not only of Brazilians but of all peoples.

The recognition, of course, was well received by the population, even considering that portion that judges Edson Arantes do Nascimento with some reservations about passages in his biography. The curious thing is that he himself referred to “Pelé” in the third person, as if the great and incomparable athlete had to some extent detached himself from himself. In any case, controversy aside, who became a dictionary entry was Pelé, not Edson – the eternal Pelé, as many have said, whose legacy cannot be put in doubt.

Many people were also curious about the criteria for including a word in the dictionary and how this is done. In fact, it is an innovation to insert someone’s name in the lexicon as a form of homage and, even more so, to do so through public consultation and petition on the internet, as happened in this case. Regardless of the unusual path, it was necessary, to justify the insertion, to have support in the concrete use of the term in the proposed sense.

It is not new that it is common to say or hear that someone is the Pelé of gastronomy, the Pelé of medicine, the Pelé of volleyball or even the Pelé of the women’s soccer team – in short, we use the name of Pelé as a synonym for “most talented “, “surprising”, “better” etc. It was based on this use that the entry was structured. This type of construction, however, occurs or can occur with other proper names that are representative of some particular quality or behavior that one wishes to transfer to another.

Who remembers Judge Selma, a candidate for Podemos who had her mandate revoked in 2020, whose nickname was “I live in a skirt”? Due to the strong anti-corruption discourse, she was associated, by analogy, with the Lava Jato judge, then champion of the cause. At the time, the press treated the judge as “the Moro de skirt”, with a feminine article before the male name, which leads us to ask why, then, to use the phrase “de skirt”. This naturally serves to say that it is a woman, that is, “the Moro in a skirt” or a female version of (do) Moro.

This same type of structure appears in occasional uses. If “the Brazilian Shakespeare” can be a playwright who achieves the relevance or qualities of the English reference, “a Pavarotti in a shower”, in a joking tone, can be the neighbor who lets out his voice while taking a shower. As can be seen, even though Pelé deserves the homage, this usage in itself, at least at first glance, seems insufficient to make the first name common, unless, of course, its wide dissemination constitutes the definitive argument.

Now let’s see how the entry in Michaelis was structured:

pe.lé® adj m+f sm+f That or who is out of the ordinary, who or who by virtue of their quality, value or superiority cannot be equaled to anything or anyone, as well as Pelé®, Edson’s nickname Arantes do Nascimento (1940-2022), considered the greatest athlete of all time; exceptional, incomparable, unique. He is the kick of basketball. She is the skin of tennis. She is the skin of dramaturgy [sic] Brazilian.

First, we see “pelé” followed by the trademark symbol (yes, Pelé is a brand) and then classified as a masculine and feminine adjective (adj m+f) and as a masculine and feminine noun (sm+f). From this classification it is deduced (a) that the noun is common to two genders, admitting, therefore, the masculine and the feminine article (o pelé, a pelé), and (b) that, as an adjective, although there is no example in the entry, can characterize masculine and feminine terms (a pelé* attitude, a pelé* behavior). Asterisks indicate virtual use, as concrete examples are lacking. The use of a feminine article before “pelé”, as it is not frequent, sounds somewhat artificial. In general, a usage is established before it is included in the dictionary, not after, but let’s wait and see.

In the acknowledgment (examples), there was a typo in the word “dramaturgy”, which could already have been corrected (until the moment this text is written, the spelling remains incorrect). In addition, there was a lack of examples of the term used effectively as an adjective. Therefore, it could be intensified by an adverb (“She was very skinny in the game”, “He is more fur than the friend”) or as a noun characterization (“a dribble skin“).

In any case, in the mouth of the people – particularly in the soccer games across the country or inland –, “give a little skin” is to dribble the opponent in a move that imitates the great Pelé. This use shows the vitality of the term and points to new creative possibilities. Will we ever hear a verb “pelezar”?

For now, “pelé” – in lowercase – arrives in the dictionary as a neologism. The change of grammatical class, called “improper derivation”, is one of the phenomena that explain the appearance of new terms in the language. The transition from a proper name to a common name occurs when the particular traits of a certain being disappear, letting its more general sense prevail.

This is the case for innovative product names. In Brazil, even today Danone is synonymous with yogurt, which is explained by the pioneering spirit of the brand in the commercialization of yogurt mixed with fruit. It’s not in the dictionary, but it’s still on people’s lips (“The girl asked me for a strawberry ‘danone'”).

The reverse also occurs: the common noun becomes a proper noun. This is the case of some surnames, derived from geographical features (Rios, Ribeiro, Fontes, Fonseca), animals (Leão, Coelho), trees (Carvalho, Nogueira, Pereira) etc. “Carrasco”, for example, is a surname probably derived from a name of a plant (the same as “carrasqueiro”), but it has become a synonym for “executioner” because it is the surname of a famous executioner of the death penalty – Belchior Nunes Carrasco – who would have lived in Lisbon before the 15th century.

As you can see, words can change meaning as you go along. It all really depends on the use. Words invented in offices may even enter the dictionary, as happened with “ludopédio”, a creation of the philologist Castro Lopes (who died at the beginning of the 20th century), who intended to replace the foreign word “football” with a term formed from Latin.

The fact is that language users thought it best to pronounce the English term in Portuguese (with vowel support), which led to the spelling “soccer”. Had the grammarian’s invention prevailed, Pelé would be the “king of the ludopedio”. It will be?

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