Handy Island

Handy Island
"The Air War Finds A Handy South Atlantic Island" was the caption on this Peter Hurd painting of Ascension Island, from Life Magazine, April 1945. It was the only place for pilots to refuel between Natal and West Africa.

Friday, October 21, 2011

"The Snake is Smoking": Unique World War II Slang

When I found paintings of Recife, Brazil, where my father went on leave from Ascension in 1942, in the  April 30, 1945 "Life's War Artists" edition of Life Magazine, I also learned a bit of historic Brazilian World War II slang.

Brazil was neutral until 1942. Up to that point, Brazil's president, Getulio Vargas, said "snakes would smoke" before Brazil got into the war.

That is an expression in Brazil like "pigs will fly." Meaning, never.

But after a series of incidents in the Atlantic involving the sinking of Brazilian ships by the Nazis, Brazil declared war on Germany August 22, 1942.

Here is what Life Magazine says about Brazil's support of the Allies: "Brazil, alone of Latin-American countries, early sent a fighting division to the front in Italy.  There the Brazilians fought with a curiously impromptu gallantry and gave the Allied armies a new piece of slang, "the snake is smoking," meaning that "things are getting rugged."

Life was only partly right in their translation. Since Brazil's president had said "snakes would smoke" before Brazil got into the war, the Brazilian Expeditionary Force adopted the slogan "The Snake is Smoking," for their unit's motto. It kind of meant, "Look Out!"

And they put a smoking snake on the BEF patch. So, "the snake is smoking" or (in Portuguese) "A Cobra vai Fumar!" is an expression that, according to my recent correspondent, continues to be used in Brazil to this day. It means: "something really amazing is about to happen."

But that, in itself, probably isn't unusual in amazing Brazil.

Satirical painting by World War II artist, Reginald Marsh, of a street in Natal. The caption reads: "'Street Scene', includes (from left) U.S. Navy admiral, flappers, Brazilian soldier, a U.S. MP, Brazilian porters, black-hatted priest, Brazilian general, British sailor."

(My excuse for writing about this is that many Allied soldiers, and their equipment, on their way to fighting in Africa and the Mediterranean, transited through Natal and Ascension Island. So it does have a connection with Wideawake Engineers, after all.)

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