I know some strange words in Portuguese: steel wool, plywood, external outlet, rattrap, glossy paint. I’ve learned most of these words through amusing conversations with my colleagues. Before I go to the hardware store (I know the word for hardware store too), I describe to the guys in my office what I need and ask them what it’s called. Sometimes we get the word after a simple conversation, I verify it with a couple people, and I’m off to the hardware store (usually with the word written on my palm to make sure I don’t forget it). Sometimes large debates ensue between my colleagues as to what the best word is. Many times someone ends up drawing a picture and passing it around. I need to make sure after all. And always, no matter how sure I am that I’ve been given the correct word, I’m amazed that the people in the hardware store hand me what I ask for upon first request.
Today I needed a pipe cleaner. A friend suggested that the reason my gas oven is working so poorly is because the tiny holes that the gas passes through are probably clogged. They told me exactly which hardware store to go to to buy a very thin pipe cleaner. Of course none of us knew the word for pipe cleaner. But no worries, I was confident I could describe exactly what I wanted.
The two hardware stores I went to didn’t understand my description of “a long skinny thing to clean the inside of an oven”. I even demonstrated how skinny and how it went inside a skinny pipe. (But I found out later that I was using the word skinny that describes a person, not a thing.)
Back at the office, my housemate and I both talked to one of the guys in administration who is a trained electrician to see if he knew the word we were looking for. In that conversation I learned the correct word for an object that is skinny. I also learned the words for pipes/tubes, fibers, and brush. Plus we made a little drawing. Sadly, our colleague did not know the word. But armed with the drawing and new vocabulary words, I made a new attempt at finding a pipe cleaner.
This time I was able to point to the drawing and say, “I don’t know what this is called, but it is long and very skinny for cleaning inside skinny pipes inside an oven.” Four hardware stores knew what I was talking about (supposedly!) but didn’t have what I wanted, and one random store that sells absolutely everything showed me a bottle brush and then after further discussion suggested I use a string soaked in oil. (Yes, but how do I get the string inside the pipes?)
P.S. According to a dictionary at home, the word for pipe cleaner is limpa-cachimbo. I just texted my electrician colleague to see if that word is used here. If he understands it, I will try the hardware stores once again. And then I can add another strange word to my list of Portuguese vocabulary words.