Spanish/Portuguese term for Captain of Emergencies in the Age of Sail?
October 6, 2014 1:59 PM   Subscribe

Years ago, someone from Portugal mentioned a concept and position on large European seafaring boats, who was on the boat to ward off disaster, or to take the helm if one occurred. They said there was a word in Portuguese for this concept - someone who is prized for being able to rescue catastrophic situations. Does anyone know this word or concept?

The captain would in those cases turn over the helm to this person; otherwise their role was that of a regular sailor (not, say, a 2d or 3d mate). I also seem to remember that certain types of sailors were thought to have this quality / be excellent at surviving all possible eventualities at sea.

This word was used as an example of a concept that had no translation in other languages. Also one which was still used in the language, even though the origin of the word was outdated.

I can't find any sources talking about this, and sadly no longer have a way to reach this person. I thought I might turn to MeFi for help!
posted by metasj to Writing & Language (3 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I think the word you are looking for is desenrascanço
posted by florzinha at 2:31 PM on October 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: florzinha has it... urban legend has it that Dutch ships in the 17th century required Portuguese pilots for emergencies - because of this characteristic of desenrascanço.

The problem is that the current usage of desenrascanço means the opposite of skill - it's hacking or solving a problem creatively without knowledge or resources. Maybe at some point it meant that a sailor was an excellent professional - desenrascar, the associated verb, can also be connected to a nautical term for untangling ship sails. These days there is a national pride in desenrascanço (and a belief that it's something of a national trait), so this anecdote says more about contemporary self image than about historical fact. Portuguese 17th century pilots were extremely valued, highly trained professionals as Portugal had been developing a seafaring science for centuries. For instance, at some point in 1600's Japan, merchant ships were required by law to have a Portuguese pilot.

Another version of the same myth of the "resourceful Portuguese person to the rescue" used in management training settings goes something like this: the perfect factory is completely staffed by Germans plus one single Portuguese worker inside a glass box with a sign saying "break in case of emergency".
posted by Marauding Ennui at 3:52 PM on October 6, 2014 [18 favorites]

Response by poster: Fantastic! Thank you both, this has been nagging at me for some time. Marauding Ennui, I appreciate the Japanese example, and the shift in meaning over time. Now that I have a word to search for, I see the debates people have about it and its modern usage (and can find a good portuguese etymology).
posted by metasj at 6:48 PM on October 6, 2014

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