Saturday, April 5, 2008


***Please note the informative commentary below on what--unexpectedly--turned out to be a fairly controversial blog post***

This word, 'diay', is used quite frequently in Costa Rican Spanish in a number of different situations. Most notably, 'diay' is used for what in English would be something like "wtf?" (I prefer not to spell that out for you.)

For example, if I ask someone if he went to his AA meeting last night, to which he responded "no", I would say "diay"? (Just in case you didn't know, punctuation goes outside of quotation marks in written Spanish.) In one simple word I can express the following sentence: "I can't believe you didn't go to your AA meeting, you really should've gone, and you should be ashamed of yourself."

What other word can say so much?

You can also use 'diay' as filler before starting something you're gonna say. In this case it is used like the English 'well' as in "Well...I didn't go to my AA meeting because I had a doctor's appointment."

***Clarification on this post, ¡Diay!***

I must clarify a few issues brought up by the comments found below. I see why people might take issue with my lackluster effort at determining a translation for 'diay'.

First of all, 'wtf' is not the best translation. 'Diay' is perhaps best translated as 'what happened', 'why not', or a number of similar phrases that can express surprise and wonderment. My problem with using these phrases was that they are too numerous. It's my fault for succumbing to my laziness and trying to come up with a catch-all phrase, which wasn't appropriate for the situation. I thought 'wtf' would be a good example of a translation because it not only asks what happened (or what didn't happen) effectively but also expresses the surprise of an expected--or an unacceptable--outcome. (There are a number of occasions when you would ask "What happened?", but you'd most commonly say 'Diay?' when the outcome was unexpected or unacceptable.)

Also, people might rightly take issue with the vulgarity of 'wtf', which might imply that 'diay' is somehow a vulgar word, which it is not. I simply meant to convey to English speakers, in a concise way, what might be a possible replacement for 'wtf'. I think 'diay' does indeed work for the majority of these cases. This semantic problem arises when you try to make this translation reciprocal. I would never imply that Costa Ricans are really trying to say something as vulgar as 'wtf' when saying 'diay'. More importantly, I would never recommend that a Costa Rican start saying 'wtf' in English instead of 'diay', especially because it often won't even make sense.

If there's something to be learned here (this is certainly something I have learned) it's that translations can be very tricky. In this case I will concede that my original use of 'wtf' alone as a translation for 'diay' was innacurrate in that it was extremely inadequate.


Anonymous said...

Hmm, I would disagree as to what 'diay' means. i would not say its 'wtf' but rather 'why, what happened?, why not?' (in the AA case mentioned) as it does not necessarily mean something as strong as 'wtf'. its an interjection which depending on the intonation can mean something different in each context.

Thomas Carmona said...

You're probably right. Most of the time 'diay' is not quite as strong as 'wtf'.

My post is probably very telling of the strong language we often employ in the United States in very commonplace situations. In Costa Rica a 'wtf' equivalent would only be used in very serious cases. In the US, in our everyday language we don't shy away from what is traditionally vulgar language, especially with close friends.

TheShuttleBus Guy said...

Mr. Carmona is incorrect about the real meaning of 'Diay' in Costa Rican spanish. You can track down the use of this term to back to the 1900's. I can't imaging my grand parents really meaning WTF every time they used it on a daily basis. By no means do we Costa Ricans consider this term to be inappropriate, since every kid grows up using it.

¿Diay? means, "What happened?" Diay as a response to "What happened?" would mean "Well...".

EN. What happened yesterday, you didn't come?
SP. ¿Y diay, que pasó ayer que no llegaste?

EN. Well, I couldn't find the place.
SP. Diay, no encontré el lugar.

One should also know that this term is only used in Costa Rica.

I understand that your posting somehow was wellintentioned, so I liked to clarify the true meaning since I'm one of those kids who grew up using the expression.


Thomas Carmona said...

You're right. WTF is not a good translation for 'diay'. I would never imply that your grandparents used 'diay' in such a vulgar way.

I, however, am often vulgar in the way I use English. My advice for English speakers who want to fit in in Costa Rica is to replace 'wtf' with 'diay', instead of trying to find a more vulgar alternative in Spanish. (Often equivalent vulgarities become more vulgar once translated.) You will effectively not come across as vulgar at all if you use 'diay', as TheShuttleBus Guy keenly pointed out.

To further clarify, I will say that wtf can be one example of something for which 'diay' can be a valid substitute. I understand that wtf's prominence in the original post can create a lot of confusion about diay's connotation. The point is well taken. I will edit the original post to call attention to this misunderstanding.

Anonymous said...

I would say "diay" or "idiay" is a Costa Rican way to respond to infelicitous conditions, in order words to respond to situations that don't have the wanted result. The intonation marks degrees of disappointment, I am Costa Rican, and I cannot think of "diay" as WTF.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, "diay" can (in addition to expressions like "What happened?") also be compared to the formal English word "alas," as in an expression of resignation to something unpleasant.

Anonymous said...

When I lived in Cartago , Paraíso, we used Diay as saying hi. Like I would walk in to a house of my family and one would say diay, as in hello

Anonymous said...

"Diay" is really a short form of "Idiay" which is very often used in my country.

They say that the origin of "Idiay" probably comes from the expression "¿Y de ahí?" like in the sentence:

¿Y de ahí qué? (And what from there?)

By saying that expression fast too many times it became "Idiay" and now a shorter form "Diay".

Anonymous said...

It comes from "Qué hay"? like "what's up?"

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Anonymous said...

Many people also use "Diay" as a way to say "Hi". I have heard that the word change through the decades, people use to ask, How are you, and, where do you came from...for the last question the answer was "from there" (de ahi), just to answer something without giving so much explanations. Due to the way costaricans talks, including myself, we changed "de ahi" for "diay" : ) Atte: Esteban Orozco Fonseca

Erme Chavez said...

I would say the closest one could come to a "definition" of this word would be what an anonymous commenter above replied -- that it is a response to an "infelicitous condition". I think that's a practically perfect description. Yes, the examples of "what happened" and "well" are very common ones, but so often it is used just as an exclamation whose meaning varies with the situation.

It is not just surprise - for example, you definitely would not say "diay" if someone surprised you with a birthday present. But it is perfect for expressing suprise combined with annoyance. For example, say you drop something, pick it up, then drop it again, pick it up, and on the third pick up, you drop it yet again -- that's definitely an occasion for a sputtered "diay!!" at yourself.

It can be surprise and confusion, like when you plug the lamp into the wall, but it doesn't turn on when you hit the switch -- expect a "diay" in a confused tone to come out of your mouth.

Or, it can be also be used to express an ellipsis, or trailing off, in speech, when you don't want to say something out loud but you know your listener knows what you would say if you could:
"So what happened after you left the party with him?

As an American-born child of Costa Rican parents, living back and forth between the two countries all my life, one of my biggest struggles in English has been finding the appropriate word to replace "diay" with when I'm speaking English, because it is so multifunctional and can be used in so many different situations where there is often no single equivalent word in English.

Thanks for this post/discussion. My favorite tico word!

Chingada said...

I just want to add that in Nicaraguan Spanish Idiay is used in much the same way. I use it mostly to mean "what happened?"