The phrase so portagee is pidgin slang that means that something is idiotic or brainless. For example, if someone dropped their drink in a water fountain in Hawaii. The response would be to tell them that they are so portagee. It usually has negative connotations and is often linked to poking fun at the Portuguese.
Pidgin is a very simplified kind of folk speech with very limited vocabulary and grammar involved. It is especially popularly used in Hawaii. According to Bernadette, it can be considered almost a dialect of the English language. It is a kind of slang or shortcut that is often used amongst friends. The language is documented in Pidgin English in Hawaii, which tells the history of how the language evolved from contact between the Hawaiians, various English speakers, and other immigrant workers. According to the article, Pidgin was originally used by laborers to receive work instructions. The languages were mixed and simplified to create a jargon specific to Hawaii. Another example of pidgin in the article is, Please scuze too much small wahine he no can come school tomalo, which means please excuse the little girl, for she cannot come to school tomorrow. Pidgin can be considered a fusion language and a result of the states historical background.
Bernadette said that she learned this phrase spending a lot of time in Hawaii, almost every summer since she was a baby. Her cousins live in Hawaii and spoke to each other in pidgin. She started noticing the differences in language when she was around 4 years old and because of the close contact picked up on a lot of the slang, especially phrases her relatives would use.
So Portagee. is just one of those phrases that she vividly remembers because of a specific incident in her childhood. She went to the beach with her cousins, Ray and Bridget. They were building some sandcastles, when Bridget wanted to go get water to help shape the mini structure. She ended up saying something like, Im going to go get some wet water. Her imprecision with the English language caused Ray to yell out, Wet water? So portagee, Bridget! Bernadette says that this response was typical of Ray, because he was known to be a speaker of pidgin as well as making fun of Bridget constantly. Whatever the case, this situation solidified the phrase in Bernadettes memory.
Bernadette likes this phrase because she learned it in her childhood and reminds her of a simpler time. It makes her reminisce about Hawaii and all her good memories there. At the same time, she feels that to use it is very unprofessional and inappropriate. She said, Its one of those stereotypes in Hawaii that Portuguese people are stupid, a view which she strong disapproves of. In essence, the phrase is actually saying, so Portuguese, which makes it a negative stereotype of a specific nationality.
I think that the phrase, so Portagee, is actually quite demeaning. Bernadette is correct when she says that it brings about a negative connation of a certain group of people. The phrase is not only mean spirited, but also makes the speaker themselves look very provincial. It makes them seem like they do not know proper English. Their apparent ignorance is ironic because the phrase is meant to disparage the stupidity of the Portuguese.
In addition, I think that the roots of these stereotypes probably come from a long time ago, when the Portuguese first immigrated to Hawaii and were the states laborers. There was probably a class system in which the Portuguese were the bottom rung or near the bottom in rank. Although, the phrase has probably lost most of its malevolence, it still carries with it the negative associations of the past.
Ethnic stereotypes are found a lot in American culture. One could probably replace the word Portagee with any other race and have it make sense. For example, one could say, so Asian, in response to someone watching Anime (Japanese animation cartoons) or doing well in a math class. Both draw on well-known stereotypes to make fun of a certain ethnicity as well as to insult the person who the phrase is directed to.
Annotation: William, Smith C. “Pidgin English in Hawaii.” American Speech 8 (1933): 15-19. JSTOR.