Eggs and Donkeys: 7 Portuguese Idioms

Portuguese is, along with Spanish, the fastest growing language after English! You would do well to get some local sayings in your language repertoire – and what better to learn than some typical Portuguese idioms? You can puzzle over the individual words until the cows come home, but you’re not likely to work out their meanings unless someone tells you – have a look at our breakdown of 7 of the best idioms before you’re blindsided by them:

 1. Ajoelhou, tem que rezar

PortugueseIdioms - Kalandrakas

Shintō prayer” by Kalandrakas (カランドラカス) from Kanagawa, Japan – Cropped from[email protected]/508977152. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Someone who ajoelhou, tem que rezar has ‘kneeled and now has to pray’. In other words, they need to follow through with their actions and finish what they’ve started.

 2. Procurando pêlo em ovo – Searching for a hair in an egg

While this might sound a bit like ‘searching for a needle in a haystack’ it has almost the opposite meaning. Looking for a hair in an egg is to look for something that isn’t there, rather than something that is, but is hidden. Another way to say this is procurando chifre na cabeça de cavalo – searching for horns on a horse’s head.

 3. Dá Deus nozes a quem não tem dentes

This phrase is said when someone has been given a great opportunity that’s wasted on them. The literal translation is ‘God gives nuts to those who don’t have teeth’.

4. João sem braço – John without arms

A ‘John without arms’ is someone who’s pretending to be helpless or ignorant to get out of doing something. Apparently this phrase originates from when Portugal was at war and a man missing limbs could be excused from being sent to fight (which seems only fair).

5. Burro velho não aprende línguas – An old donkey doesn’t learn languages

This phrase is a bit like the English ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, but with donkeys. A donkey is often used to refer to someone who isn’t very clever, so presumably an old donkey is not only stupid, but forgetful (and maybe grumpy too). ‘Old donkey doesn’t learn languages’ is an excuse for not learning something new – don’t be an old donkey and learn some Portuguese!

6. É cor de burro quando foge

Another donkey expression – in fact, donkeys appear to feature quite a lot in Portuguese idioms. This one is literally ‘it’s the color of a donkey on the run’ and is used for a color you can’t easily describe.

 7. A galinha do vizinho sempre é mais gorda – Your neighbor’s chicken is always fatter

If the grass is always greener on the other side, it makes sense that ‘your neighbor’s chicken is always fatter’ (not that chickens eat grass, but if the grass is better then the chickens must be too). Like ‘the grass is always greener’ this phrase warns against envy – what you don’t have will always look better than what you do have.


You won’t survive in a Portuguese speaking country with idioms alone (although you could try), so take our Portuguese level test to see if your grammar and vocabulary skills are up to par.

Do you have any favorite Portuguese idioms?