Monday, December 10, 2012


In Brazil,  the word can mean a prostitute...

…or a fish.

This post is about the latter.

Their name in Tupi-Guarani simply means “toothed fish”.

They are found in many of the rivers of Brazil and can grow to a length exceeding forty centimeters.  
Most, however, are a good deal smaller, the average being about half that.

I have written earlier in this space about President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1913 expedition up the River of Doubt:

When he returned to the United States, he published a book about his experiences.

Here’s what he had to say about Piranha:

“They are the most ferocious fish in the world. Even the most formidable fish, the sharks or the barracudas, usually attack things smaller than themselves. But the piranhas habitually attack things much larger than themselves. They will snap a finger off a hand incautiously trailed in the water; they mutilate swimmers—in every river town in Paraguay there are men who have been thus mutilated; they will rend and devour alive any wounded man or beast; for blood in the water excites them to madness.”

He wasn't wrong. Attacks on humans are recurring in the Amazon basin. The photograph below was taken in that area. The sign reads, Attention bathers. Area subject to piranha attack. Careful!

In the city of Palmas, Tocantins, 190 piranha attacks were reported in the first half of 2007. In 2011, a drunk eighteen-year-old man was attacked and killed in Rosario del Yata, Bolivia. In 2012, a five-year-old Brazilian girl met the same fate in Piauí.

But while shoals of piranha can consist of as many as 1,000 fish, the stories about them being capable of reducing a human being to a skeleton in a matter of minutes are vast exaggerations.

That voracious, they are not.

If, however, you’re into gruesome images, try Googling the words mordidas de piranhas.
And click on images.
Most, I warn you, are pretty horrible – the reason I didn't want to reproduce them here.

And then there’s the boi de piranha.

The literal meaning is “piranha ox”.
It’s a technique invented by people like this fellow.

Brazilian cowboys.

If they had to drive a herd of cattle across a river they knew to be infested with piranha they’d commonly sacrifice a weak or diseased animal by opening its veins and putting it in the water.

The piranhas, sensing the blood, would gather to attack.
And while the greedy little creatures were busy devouring one unfortunate beast, the others could cross safely upstream.

The expression has entered the vernacular.
And come to mean sacrificing any person or thing for another person or thing, generally of higher value for the person doing the sacrificing.

Scapegoat would be a good translation for some of the usages, but not for all. It’s a very useful phrase if you speak Portuguese, virtually incomprehensible, in a literal translation, for people who don’t.

But now that you know what it means, you’ll be able to appreciate this cartoon:

Substitute the names on the cattle for some of your own least-favorite politicians.

Leighton - Monday


  1. This probably says more about me than you, Leighton, but I thought this one of the most interesting posts I've read in a very long time. And I went for the images...which I suggest no one try if your stomach is queasy or you'd like to sleep without nightmares tonight.

    I guess I should also "warn" that your search engine might turn up some images relating to the alternative meaning for piranha.

  2. Nature is interesting, and totally invested in survival, apparently. Interesting.

  3. [laughs] And one of the images that appears in a Google search (as suggested) on "mordidas de piranhas" is ... Jeffrey Siger, specifically the photograph from this blog.--Mario R.

  4. Oh, gosh, Mario, I wonder how that happened?