Tipping heritage or the tombamento

Protected heritage? The conflicting meanings of the tombado.
Protected heritage? The conflicting meanings of the tombamento.

As I am learning Portuguese, I often rely on Google to translate words or phrases. One phrase that repeatedly appears in my research is the word tombamento that always appears in context with the designation of heritage buildings and places. Google insists on translating this word into the English word, “tipping”. For instance, take this phrase, which is from a paper I am reading:

O tombamento, por si só, é uma ferramenta importante, mas falha no contexto atual.

Which translates to:

The tipping, by itself, is an important tool, but fails in the current context.

My first reaction was that “tipping” might apply to leaving a gratuity, but I quickly abandoned this concept. Google translate gave me a bit of a clue as it meant “to tip” as in to topple something over. But, this made even less sense. How could a word that ought to be associated with the protection of heritage translate as a word that is akin to destruction?

Ann Laura Stoler (2013, p. 171), writing about ruins and imperial power, illuminates both the origin and meanings of tombamento and its manifestations: “Linked to the Latin tumulum, or storehouse, the verb tombar is traceable to Portugal’s national archive, the Torre do Tombo. Tombar means to crystalize, to fix the form of something, to fall, to knock down, or to drop dead.” In Portuguese law, tombar is a verb that means to make an inventory (Oliveira, p. 120). Stoler’s definition exposes the strange conflict in meanings of the tombamento in that it means both crystallization (e.g., inscribing on a list for posterity) and destruction. In context with other forms of the word, tombamento describes the process of inscription of heritage places into an official list, tombar is the verb used to describe the process, and once it is done, the property becomes tambado.

In Brazil, the National Congress created the law of tombamento in 1937, officially establishing the procedures used to identify and protect built heritage (Ribeiro, p. 50). In Brazil (and I assume Portugal as well), the word registrado, which means to place an historic property on an official register, such as the World Heritage List, is also used. What appears to be unique about tombamento is that the word means both registration and regulatory protection, and as such seems to be rather unique. (In English, for instance, we have no such word to differentiate between heritage that has been listed with regulatory protection and heritage without such protection.) A word that means both listing and regulatory protection could be rather useful in the United States, for instance, as it is commonly misunderstood that listing on the National Register of Historic Places results in the regulation of private property (it does not), while listing at the local level, such as by a municipality, is usually associated with regulatory protection.

And now for some word fun, courtesy of Stoler (2013, p. 172):

Espero que eles tombem meu prédio antes de eu tombar morto.

which means

I hope they patrimonialize [tombar] my building before I fall down [tombar] dead.



Oliveira, Lúcia Lippi. (2008). Cultura é patrimônio: um guia. Rio de Janeiro: FGV Editora.

Ribeiro, Sandra Bernardes. (2005). Brasília: memória, cidadania e gestão do patrimônio cultural. Brasília: Annablume.

Stoler, Ann Laura. (2013). Imperial debris: On ruins and ruination. Durham: Duke University Press.

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