Five things you didn’t know about Brazil

1. Brazil’s name comes from a tree

Brazil’s original name was Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross) – given by the explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral when he landed in Brazil in 1500. When they figured out Brazil wasn’t an island, they changed it to Terra de Santa Cruz (Land of the Holy Cross).

The first commercial export of the new land was brazilwood (pau-brasil in Portuguese). “Brasil” comes from the Portuguese word brasa (ember), because the wood has a red color and can be used to make red dye. The inhabitants of this new land came known as brasileiros – that is, people who work in the harvest of brazilwood. And brasileiro is the word for Brazilian to this day!

Bonus Fact: Brazilwood is commonly used to make violin/cello bows. Just look at that handsome color!

2. The colors of the Brazilian flag originally represented European nobility

Dom Pedro I, the first ruler of the Brazilian empire, decreed in 1822 that the Brazilian flag would be green with a yellow diamond, with the imperial crest in the middle flanked by branches of coffee and tobacco to represent the country’s wealth. It looked like this:

The green and yellow represented the dynasties of Braganza (which Dom Pedro I belonged to) and Habsburg (which his wife belonged to).

When Brazil was proclaimed a Republic in 1889, a temporary flag was used for four days. It looked like this:

On November 19, 1822, the modern Brazilian flag was adopted in more or less the design it has today. It is now believed that the green represents the forest, the yellow represents Brazil’s mineral wealth, and the blue represents the sky.

Bonus Fact: The stars are actually in constellations and depict the night sky over Rio de Janeiro on the night the Republic was declared. Also, each star stands for a specific Brazilian state.

3. Over 200 languages exist in Brazil

…and there used to be many more; it is estimated that around 75% of the indigenous languages that once existed in Brazil have become extinct. Of the ones that remain, 42 are considered practically extinct and 91 are at high risk, being spoken by fewer than 100 people.

The languages that still have a reasonably strong presence are:

  • Creole: 25,000 speakers in Amapá
  • Caingangue: 18,000 speakers in seven states
  • Caiwá: 15,000 speakers in Mato Grosso do Sul
  • Terêna: 15,000 speakers in the interior of Mato Grosso do Sul
  • Ticuana: 12,000 speakers in the north of Amazônia
  • Guaraní: 5,000 speakers in the central-west of Paraná
Bonus Fact: The words jaguar, piranha, and açaí all come from the Guaraní language.

4. Brazil’s capital city was built within less than 4 years

Brazil’s first capital was Salvador (1549-1763) followed by Rio de Janeiro (1763-1960).

The idea to move the capital inland goes back to 1761, when the prime minister of Portugal at the time wanted to move the capital of the Portuguese empire to the interior of the Brazil colony. The idea eventually gained steam, and in the first constitution of the Republic of Brazil in 1891 there was a decree to move the capital from Rio to a more central location.

President Juscelino Kubitschek ordered construction to begin in 1956, and Brasilia was officially inaugurated in 1960. It was projected to have a population of 600,000 by the year 2000, but the population exploded – today, it’s home to about 2.5 million and is the 4th largest city in Brazil.

Bonus Fact: From the air, Brasilia looks like an airplane. Can you see it?


5. Brazilians believe they invented the airplane

Alberto Santos-Dumont is considered “the Father of Aviation” in Brazil, and many Brazilians believe it to be a great injustice that he is not credited with the invention of the airplane.

Santos-Dumont made his first flight in a fixed-wing airplane in Paris in 1906. The news exploded in Europe and Santos-Dumont’s flight was recognized and certified by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

…but then the American Wright brothers came forward and claimed they had beaten Santos-Dumont by three years, with their 1903 Kitty Hawk flight.

Brazilians say the Wright brothers’ flight “didn’t count” because:

  • They used a catapult and rails to launch the plane, whereas Santos-Dumont’s plane had wheels.
  • Kitty Hawk has strong headwinds that helped their plane get off the ground, whereas Santos-Dumont’s plane took off on its own power.

Bonus Fact #1: The Wright brothers version is apparently not taught in Brazilian history textbooks.

Bonus Fact #2: Santos-Dumont was one of the first men to use a wristwatch (as opposed to a pocket watch), as it was easier for him to check the time while keeping both hands on the controls.

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Which of the five facts surprised you the most?

Leave a comment with your answer!

  • You have no idea how many times I have had to listen to the plane story. Really.

    I did not know the colors of the flag part. My husband tried to tell me what the colors meant, but I think he just made it up 😉

    • Shayna

      When I brought up Santos-Dumont with my husband, he got defensive! “The Americans may have flown, but WE were the ones who got the plane off the ground on its own power! How is it an airplane if it can’t take off by itself?!?”

  • hi! i live in Sao Paulo – Brazil.
    your blog is very interesting! 😉

    • Shayna

      Thanks 🙂

  • I didn’t know # 2 and 3 (or at least I learned something). Interesting post. #5 always makes me laugh. Brazilians wish they had invented the plane.

    • Why the laugh ? Santos Dumont’s flight was very well documented. I have had French colleagues who also talk about it and roll their eyes up about Wright Brother’s.

  • nina

    Did you learn this in Portuguese class? I learned this in my Portuguese classes. Brazil is the only country (according to my Portuguese teacher) to be named after a tree.

  • Definitely the flag one surprised me the most! I knew #1 and had a sense of #4. But the flag one was interesting, especially the one that looks like a wrongly colored American flag. I’m glad they didn’t keep that one.

  • Bella

    Also in europe we say that Santos-Dumont was the first one to fly and I still believe he did 🙂

    Bonus Fact #1: they do teach about the Wright brothers.

    Bonus Fact #2: The first watch ever created by Cartier came into existence in 1904, when the Brazilian Aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont asked the jeweler to make him a watch that would be more adequate to use during his flights. This timepiece became known as the “Santos” wristwatch, named after the pilot himself. The Santos, however, did not go on the market until 1911. Two years after the creation of the first mens wristwatch, in 1906, the world saw the creation of jeweled watches by Cartier.

    • Shayna

      Yes! I came across the wristwatch fact while researching Santos-Dumont. Very interesting 🙂

  • Hi!
    I can tell the U.S.A. flag really inspired our first Republican flag…
    The militaries who deposed the Emperor had the USA republic as reference.

    I born and live in Brasilia, most of the city was built after 1960. Until 1960 only some superblocks of the south wing and the sattellite cities of Taguatinga and Nucleo Bandeirante were built.

    Another thing you should know (or already know): We, Brasileiros, never understand why the people from USA call themselves “Americans” and their country as “America”…

    Because… well… america is the continent, isn’t that so?! We’re all americans!
    It always sounds like a “manifest destiny”, the monroe doctrine or something…

    For us, and i think all latin america would agree, is quite strange nominate your country…

    Abraço,
    Juliano.

    • Shayna

      As much as possible, I try to remember to say “I’m from the United States” and not “I’m American,” for exactly the reason you mentioned. However, it’s a little difficult because the word “American” has come to mean “estadunidense” just from people constantly saying it so much. So I think most everybody who says “American” or “America” does it because of habit, not because they are trying to be superior or exclude Central and South Americans.

  • Miria

    I’m sorry about the other comment I made. Your blog is so good. I was thinking you were laughing brazilians … I’m so sorry.

  • David Dallas

    Hi, my last name is “Dallas” but I am brazilian, Your blog is very interesting, God Bless you!

  • Valter Soares

    Which of the five facts surprised you the most?

    It is a difficult question, I loved all. In addition to learning English from you now I got general knowledge.

  • Gabriella Soares

    Hey, nice blog! But, honestly, ”

    Brazilians believe they invented the airplane”?? We did hahaha if you take a few minutes looking it up on the internet you’ll see several articles comparing Santos Dumont flight and the Wright brothers catapult and showing that there are actual proofs of Santos Dumont flight, against the Wright brothers “words” saying they flew in 1903…