A plump woman strolling through a Mexican market might be showered with affectionate cries of gordita (fatty). In Argentina, feo (ugly) can be a term of endearment. Even here in Brazil, a black woman might be flattered to be called neguinha (little black girl).
Throughout Latin America, a person is as likely to be described by his skin color or girth as someone elsewhere might be called tall or smart or gregarious. A word that in the US could provoke a fistfight or a court case is often just a personal identifier here.
Now Brazil is making its first forays into changing this. Last year the government quietly issued an 87-page document entitled "Political Correctness and Human Rights," which listed 96 words and phrases it hopes will eventually become unacceptable.
The challenge is formidable: introducing P.C. terms bucks years of tradition and cultural norms. And the government may have undercut its own efforts, prompting ridicule earlier this month when word spread that the list included words such as "clown" and "drunk" that it said could offend comedians or tipplers.
But the move shines a light on the culturally complex relationship between words and prejudice in the region. In the absence of institutional racism, the implicit condoning of racially sensitive terms is one of the reasons racism persists here, many experts say.
"If you use the N-word in public in the United States, you will lose your job, there's no question about it. It is unacceptable," says Thomas Stephens, author of "The Dictionary of Latin American Racial and Ethnic Terminology." "But in Brazil nobody has made a concerted effort to remove these words from the language. Brazil has never corrected itself like the United States has."
That failure to understand how racially sensitive words perpetrate discrimination is typical of many Brazilians, academics and black leaders here say. Because there has been no institutional racism in Brazil since slavery was abolished in 1888 - no separate toilets or buses, no limits on interracial unions, no ban on black groups or political parties - many Brazilians firmly believe that racism does not exist.
Discrimination, however, is evident in many ways, black leaders say. Afro-Brazilians live on average 5.3 years less than white Brazilians and are more likely to be poor, sick, uneducated, and unemployed. Those who do have jobs earn only 46 percent of what whites earn, according to a government study released in 2000.
But perhaps the clearest example is found in conversations, says Douglas Souza, assistant secretary for the government's Promotion of Racial Equality Policies. "Racism in Brazil exists though hidden interpersonal relationships," Mr. Souza says. "There are no racist laws, but there is a culture of racism and the instruments of that racism here are words."
In the US, minorities have waged lengthy battles to take control of the language used to describe them. Indigenous groups have rejected the term "Indians." "African-American" has replaced negro and colored. Even some disabled people find the term "handicapped" offensive. But the black lobby in Brazil, where 45 percent of Brazilians call themselves black or dark-skinned, does not have the political clout to dictate what words are unacceptable.
Even if it did, the vagaries of the Portuguese language (and Spanish in Hispanic America) complicate the process. The impact of sensitive words can be reduced by using the diminutive forms of nouns. By adding "-inho" for the masculine or "-inha" for feminine softens a word and gives it an affectionate, less-threatening feel.
"The word neguinha, for example. There's nothing more racist, even if it is used in a supposedly affectionate way," says Mr. Stephens. "You can use euphemisms, but it means the same thing."
The government document contains many such euphemisms, along with warnings that some people may find them offensive. At least 17 of the 96 terms refer to race, ethnicity, or creed. However, those serious warnings were missed in the firestorm over the inclusion of many other seemingly innocuous words. Drunks should not be called drunks because even alcoholics deserve respect, the document says. Old people should be called elderly because being called old has negative connotations. And the document even counseled people to take care when using the word clown in case professional funnymen get offended.
Bestselling author João Ubaldo Ribieiro ignited the situation earlier this month when he criticized the text as an "authoritarian, delirious and stupid" example of political correctness. Perly Cipriano, the government official who oversaw the document's publication, says the intention was not to prohibit words or phrases, and that there would be no condemnation and no penalty.
However, the outcry was so loud that officials quickly halted distribution of the document. The human rights secretary said the government would convene a seminar on the subject next month at which experts and representatives of minority groups will discuss how to address the issue in the future.
Black leaders say that the government's quick capitulation will serve only to maintain the status quo. A subject that should be debated seriously is once again being buried, they say. "People tried to disqualify [the document] because it touches on words that are racist and that are used as a matter of course," says Ivanir dos Santos, one of Rio's most outspoken black leaders. "One of the principal characteristics of Brazilian racism is that we don't talk about it. Withdrawing it is a mistake."