West of the Fields

A tropical ecologist reporting from the field. Musings on life and art, botfly extractions, tropical plant identification, beer, parrots, machetes. Etc.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

How to Talk Like a Tico

Rather than waxing eloquent about the sound of rain, the ubiquity of geckos, or the tendency of all things to mildew, this week I will wax didactic.

Why are Costa Ricans called ticos? (At first I thought the term was so unbearably cute that I refused to use it on principle. But everybody here uses it here, so much so that it became impossible to avoid.) I learned that it comes from a peculiarity in the dialect. Most Spanish speakers frequently use the diminutive to indicate the smallness or cuteness of something, so that, e.g., chica (“small”) becomes chiquita (“tiny”). Particularly small or cute things are indicated with a double diminutive, e.g. chiquitita (“itsy-bitsy”). In Costa Rica, the double diminutive is rendered chiquitica. The closest I can come to rendering the sense of it into English would be “nice and,” as in “the water is nice and cool.” (“El agua está fresquitica.”)

In practice, I’ve only heard the “-tico” from the older generation, and only way out in the countryside. City dwellers speak a more globalized Spanish. (The disappearance of “-tico” reminds me in a way of the vanishing “deah” on the coast of Maine. That’s “dear,” for the non-Mainers out there. When I was young it was not at all uncommon to hear “that be all, deah?” at the hardware store or “more coffee, deah?” at the diner. These days it seems to be the province of blue-haired ladies.) Be that as it may, the “-tico” example only scratches the surface of the idiosyncrasies of Costa Rican Spanish.

Another peculiarity of Costa Rican Spanish—and it may be just this region, but I think it is more general—is an odd habit of putting a “sh” sound at the end of words that end in R, and exaggerating the R. For example, the common term of endearment mi amor (my love) becomes mi amorrsh, or the common phrase va a llover (it’s going to rain) becomes va a lloverrsh.

A Colombian friend complained, only half in jest, that Costa Ricans are impoverishing the Spanish language. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s true that there are a great number of words here that refer to broad categories. For instance, any plant can be called a mata, and any animal can be called a bicho (the word carries none of the raunchy connotations that it apparently bears in Puerto Rico). Any small object, especially a part of a mechanical apparatus, can be called a chunche. Anything bad or unpleasant is feo (literally “ugly”), and anything good, delicious, or pleasant is rico (literally “rich”). This afternoon a friend of mine, one of the field workers, was reminiscing about afternoons spent on the river. “¡Que rico es pescar!” he said. How rich it is to fish. Learning these five words—mata, bicho, chunche, feo and rico—will put you well on the road to talking like a tico.

Though much of Costa Rican slang seems designed to streamline the vocabulary, the dialect here is full of metaphor and metonymies. Mosquitoes, as in much of Latin America, are called zancudos (“long-legged ones”). A catfish is a barbudo (“bearded one.”) Some of the expressions are delightful—I recently learned that the accepted term for the valve on a bike wheel is el gusano (literally “worm” or “caterpillar”).

No discussion of Costa Rican Spanish would be complete without the epithet of choice: hue puta, short for hijo de puta (“S.O.B.”). In the speech of the younger generation, it appears with great frequency: “¡Hue puta más feo! Va a lloverrsh.”

And no discussion of hue puta would be complete without the word that nearly always follows it: mae. Roughly equivalent to dude, it’s a word you’d never hear from anyone over thirty. The derivation is rather uncertain, but from the way it’s used and the pronunciation I would hazard a guess that it came from the surfers’ “man!” (One odd feature of mae is that women almost never say it. I get some dispensation, being a foreign woman, but I’ve had people look askance at me for saying it.)

“Mae, estaba en el bosque buscando matas y un bicho me picó.”

“¡Hue puta, mae!”

Then there’s the catch-all expression: pura vida (“pure life”). It is appropriate to every situation. There is even a bath soap, commonly found in hotels in San José, of the Pura Vida brand.

“How are you?”

“¡Pura vida!”


“¡Pura vida!”

“Do you mind if I smoke?”

“¡Pura vida!”

“What’s your opinion on the Smoot-Hawley Tariff?”

“¡Pura vida!”

The best use of pura vida, hands down, came from a guy named Rigo. He’s the greatest field assistant at La Selva—tireless, cheerful, smart, and super-accurate with a crossbow (for getting leaf samples out of tall trees, not repelling barbarians, but if I ever have to repel barbarians I hope I’ll have Rigo at my side). He goes out into the field all day with nothing but a Coke bottle full of coffee and a pack of cigarettes, and he does the work of three people. I could go on and on with Rigo stories… He and Kelly were way out at the back of La Selva this summer collecting plants when a terrific thunderstorm rolled in. A lightning bolt hit a tree perhaps a hundred meters away from them. Kelly said she crouched down in a ball and whimpered, but Rigo danced around in the rain yelling, “¡pura vida!” Pure life indeed. Beats the alternative.


At 7:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being a costarrican I couldn't avoid but to laugh at your posting, very, very funny but very accurate as well. It is true, so true about the "sh" added at the end of the words ending with "r". I enjoy knowing someone has a blast learning our costarrican spanish!
Pura vida Mae!
(my girls generation use it)

At 5:53 PM, Blogger Giovanni said...

I completely agree with what that person said. I got a kick out of it as well.

I'm an American born Costa Rican.

"Que chicha" that you left "chicha" off.

We use "chicha" when we want to express that we're mad or if something doesn't go our way. It can also mean "it's too bad."

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Maïté Liekens said...


it's really funny how I came to read your blog thingy, I'm from Belgium and some guy whom I sit next to in math is from Costa Rica. My problem now: I try to insult (just teasing him of course) him in Spanish, but he always beats me with his 'tico' and refuses to explain me what he's saying. Please help me, I'm kind of desperate. Thanks a lot! (I really enjoyed reading by the way, I could almost feel the sun on my face :)


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