Que coisa chata!

For anyone learning Portuguese and interacting with native speakers in real-life situations, one of the most useful words to have on the tip of your tongue is chato. You will hear it used frequently and once you get a feel for its range of meanings, you will find it to be just the word you need in a wide variety of situations.

The literal meaning of the word is ‘flat’. Indeed, chato and flat have the same origin. The Portuguese word derives from Vulgar Latin plattus, which in turn came from the Greek word πλατύς platys meaning ‘broad, flat’. Meanwhile, the English word is descended from the Old Norse word flatr, which derives from the Proto-Indo-European word *pleth-, the precursor of the Greek word too. The change of pl– to fl- is a manifestation of the so-called First Germanic Sound Shift, or Grimm’s Law, a set of regular and predictable phonetic changes which differentiated the Germanic language family from other branches of Indo-European (the same p > f shift can be seen in Latin pater vs. English father). The word flat actually has the same origin as the words place and plate, but the latter both came into English much later through French and therefore did not undergo the same sound shift. The initial pl– sound of some Latin words became ch– in Portuguese (e.g. pluvia > chuva, plorare > chorar, plenus > cheio, plaga > chaga, planum > chão etc.), and thus plattus became chato.

Nowadays, chato very rarely occurs in its literal meaning of flat, except in pé chato, the Portuguese term for the condition known as flat feet. To express the idea of flat, it’s more usual to use the word plano when talking about land or surfaces, and achatado (literally ‘flattened’) to talk about the shape of things. Nevertheless, the word chato is extremely common in a range of figurative senses.

In the entry for chato, most Portuguese-English dictionaries give the translations ‘boring’ and ‘annoying’. For English speakers, ‘boring’ and ‘annoying’ appear at first sight to be rather too different concepts to be expressed with the same word, but if you think about it, both involve having your patience tested, albeit in slightly different ways. The context usually makes it clear which nuance is intended. If a TV show, movie or class is described as chato, it means ‘boring’; if it’s a loud noise, mosquitoes buzzing around your ear, or the fact that the waiter still hasn’t brought your order, the meaning is ‘annoying’. When describing people, it can mean either, of course, depending on the situation and the person.

However, there are other shades of meaning that go beyond ‘boring’ and ‘annoying’. The word chato can also describe a person, action or behaviour that is churlish, ungracious, unseemly or plain rude. Forgetting someone’s birthday, getting drunk and embarrassing yourself or leaving a party without saying goodbye is all very chato.

You also use chato to describe a person who is fussy, finicky, per(s)nickety, picky, hard to please. Someone who is chato para comer is a picky eater, a child or an adult who doesn’t fall asleep easily is chato para dormir, and you can be chato para just about anything: chato para roupa ‘fussy about clothes’, chato para filme ‘fussy about movies’, chato para limpeza ‘fussy about cleanliness’ etc. etc. It’s not always seen as a bad trait, and people often describe themselves as chato, with a more positive connotation of being meticulous and having high standards.

Connected to the sense of ‘fussy’ is the use of chato to describe a task, action or object that is irksome, fiddly or awkward, such as filling in your tax return or trying to undo a faulty zipper. A typical example from the web: Esse notebook é bem chato de abrir com um monte de parafusos de tamanhos diferentes (This notebook computer is really fiddly to open with a load of different-sized screws).

Chato also translates ‘awkward’ as in embarrassing, uncomfortable, like when you get someone’s name wrong or forget it completely, have to tell your friend he/she has B.O. or walk in on someone who is using the bathroom. A situation or occurrence described as chato can extend beyond uncomfortable into the realm of unpleasant, unfortunate, upsetting, sad. It’s perfectly appropriate to respond to news that someone has lost a relative or suffered a similar setback by saying something like: Que coisa chata! Sinto muito. (How upsetting! I’m so sorry).

Chato is also used to describe medical conditions, usually those that are not particularly serious, but uncomfortable and bothersome, like heartburn or irritable bowel syndrome, and uma dor chata is a low-level nagging pain, an ache that won’t go away.

Like most adjectives in Portuguese which can refer to people, chato can be nominalized. So um chato is a boring or annoying person, a pain, and someone who is really boring or annoying, a royal pain, is um chato de galocha (literally ‘a bore in galoshes’). But as a noun, chato has another, rather unpleasant meaning. It’s the Portuguese word for crabs, or pubic lice. If you think about it, this usage actually encapsulates many of the meanings of the adjective chato; after all, crabs are annoying, uncomfortable, embarrassing, maybe even upsetting, and fiddly to get rid of.

The figurative meanings of chato have given rise to the noun chatice, meaning a bore or drag, and the verb chatear, ‘to upset’ or ‘to annoy’, which may also be used reflexively, chatear-se, to mean ‘to get upset/annoyed’. This in turn gives us the adjective chateado ‘upset’ or ‘annoyed’ and the derived noun chateação ‘upset’, ‘annoyance’.

2 thoughts on “Que coisa chata!”

  1. What a text! I think you got everything covered. Such a small word and so many meanings. As native speakers, we hardly ever notice all the subtle meanings a word have unless we have to translate it. Chato as picky or hard to please sometimes is used as nojento (another word with several meanings). Have you already thought about how nojento can be difficult to translate? Eu sou nojento might have three different meanings, one of them being chato! Eu sou nojenta com comida (chata meaning picky, fussy). I’m enjoying every word of this blog:)

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