There are 2 Portuguese expressions that really confused me and took me a long time to figure out. Both of these expressions use negative words in a positive way, which was so counterintuitive for my poor little English/Spanish-speaking brain when it was not also a Portuguese-speaking brain.
1. Pois não? = Can I help you?
WTF?! The first time I heard this, I was so confused that it just destroyed the conversation. Relying on my Spanish skills (pois sounds like pues) and English intonation (Portuguese questions sound like affirmative English statements), I originally interpreted pois não? as "well, no." I was on the phone with a bookstore, and the conversation was like this (or at least this was how I understood it):
Bookstore clerk: Good morning, ABC Bookstore.
Me: Hello, I'm looking for a book.
Bookstore clerk: Ok. Well, no.
Me: Umm... No?
Bookstore clerk: Excuse me?
Me: Um... I'm sorry, can you help me find a book?
Bookstore clerk (irritated and confused): What book is it, ma'am?
I ended the conversation thinking, "either that clerk was totally rude, or there was some miscommunication going on there."
Later, when my Portuguese was a little better, I figured out that pois is like "because", but...it still didn't make sense: "because no." or even "because no?" Huh?
Then Alexandre and I were at the corn festival, and we went up to the little booth to buy our food tickets. And the guy working at the booth said, Pois não? But he was smiling so politely! Alexandre responded to him with "We'd like some food tickets, please", and their exchange was totally friendly and cordial.
After we walked away from the booth, I asked Alexandre, "WHAT the hell does pois não mean?!"
"It's like 'Can I help you?'," he said.
"Well that doesn't make any goddamn sense!" I responded indignantly. "Is there some history of that expression? Was it longer or something?"
"I don't know", was his response, which is usually his response when it comes to grammar-related topics.
Yes. So now when I hear pois não? I just have to ignore the little instinctive voice in my head that's shouting about how strange the question is.
2. que nem.... = just like...
This expression que nem shows up in a sentence like "He gives presents to lots of children on Christmas, just like Santa!"
But nem is a function word for negation that has a few different translations into English. Usually it means "not even" or "not...or" (like in the statements, "I was so tired last night that I didn't even eat dinner" or "I don't eat chicken or fish".) (Most of my students incorrectly learn nem as "neither", which is rare, and then use "neither" way too much. But that's another issue.)
Anyway, if you think of nem as a negative word, it's totally confusing to use it for "just like", which shows that 2 things are equal. At first, I understood it as "nothing like", but then my conversations got all messed up. Like this one, with Alexandre:
Me: That girl is totally spoiled and obnoxious.
Alexandre: Yeah, que nem minha irmã (just like my sister). (I understood "Nothing like my sister").
Me: What? No, she's the same as your sister.
Alexandre: Huh? I know.
So that phrase is really against the grain for me, too. I mean, did it start out as something else? Or is it sarcastic?
Ahh..... the perils of teaching yourself a language. You don't always get it right.
Has anyone else been confused by these expressions, or by another expression that you've learned in a foreign language?