What do you say to a Brazilian when you give her cosmetics for her birthday?

Parabens prá você!

OK, I’ll explain that one. Parabens, in English, are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid (whence their name); you will see various of them – such as methylparaben and propylparaben – in the listed ingredients in cosmetics, shampoos, shaving gels, moisturizers, and toothpaste. You may, if you’re a label reader, recognize the words.

But how does parabens taste to you? Do the p and b and maybe the n somehow have a calming, soothing effect – rather like the natural-sounding paba once so popular in such things as sunscreen (and short for para-aminobenzoic acid)? Or do you think of chemicals such as propane and paraffin and benzene? Does it seem, perhaps, like a drag parachute you pop out of your Mercedes Benz to slow down quickly? Do you get an echo of parables, or pure beans, or problems? Taste it and see.

No, no, don’t drink your shampoo! And, yes, why should we talk of taste when it’s a word for a class of chemicals? Well, why not? All words have tastes, and anyway, parabens are also used as food additives. Wot, really? Well, sure, why not – some of them occur naturally in plants; for instance, methylparaben is found in blueberries. (Remember: even naturally occurring things are chemicals.)

And what do parabens do? They’re preservatives – they have anti-microbial properties. There has been some suggestion that they may affect breast cancer and may perhaps weakly mimic estrogen, but that remains, as they say in the sciences, controversial.

OK, but why did I bring Brazil into this? Well, in Portuguese, parabéns means “congratulations,” but is more of an all-purpose word: it can be used where anglophones might say That’s great, Well done, or Happy birthday. In fact, the words they sing to the Happy Birthday song in Brazil are as follows:

Parabéns pra você,
Nesta data querida,
Muitas felicidades,
Muitos anos de vida!

And why do they say “congratulations” on the notice of your advancing age? Perhaps because you’re well preserved.

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