Wednesday, April 16, 2008


In rural Costa Rica the words 'inside' and 'outside' provide just one example of a set of vague directional references that locals will employ to confuse the hell out of you.

Adentro, to a Costa Rican living in a rural area, is a directional reference meaning "further into the country (boondocks)".

Afuera, as you may expect, means "toward the city". ("Cities" in Costa Rica are often of quite modest size.)

When city folk comes to the Costa Rican countryside, they often get confused by these references. I was witness to a conversation a Costa Rican had with a city-dwelling American when this issue caused major confusion. The rural Costa Rican asked the American (U.S.) "do you like living afuera"? The American then went on to explaining that, no, he prefers the city. The Costa Rican stopped listening at some point (as he normally does) and ended the conversation thinking that the guy actually preferred living in a rural setting. When I brought this up later on, he became defensive, assuring me that the guy didn't like living "afuera".

If you've ever tried confrontation with a Costa Rican, you'll know that it's a futile endeavor. The culture has a high level of avoidance and a distaste for 'necios' who challenge other people. As a result, I didn't try convincing this guy of the cultural divide that the conversation exemplified.


Other confusing directional references include arriba and abajo. the rural Costa Rican has a surprisingly detailed picture of his area's topography in his head. He'll tell you, "voy pa' bajo", which means nothing to a city slicker. What he'll probably tell you, though, if you care to ask the right questions, is that the town that neighbors him to the south is at about 20 vertical meters below his own. I always wonder: "Couldn't he just tell me the name of the town"?!!? This wondering often gets you nowhere.

Also, Costa Ricans offer gestures to replace descriptive directional cues. Costa Ricans will point at things, whether near or far, with their lips. They press them together and stick them out, as if to make a duckbill, and nod their head in a slight upward motion in the indicated direction.

***Please note that this lip pointing is also a popular way for a Costa Rican man to point out an attractive woman to another dude***

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Voy pa' Chepe

Mexico is well known for the nicknames it has for specific given names. Francisco can be either "Paco" or "Pancho". Ignacio you can call "Nacho" (even to his face). José can be "Pepe", but in Costa Rica, he's "Chepe". (Sometimes even Josué will become Chepe.)

As you may already know, Costa Rica's capital is San José. Even the capital de la patria cannot avoid this playful tico nomenclature. Costa Ricans outside of San José will often refer to San José as "Chepe", especially when they're making a trip to the city. (It seems that the farther you get from San José, the more often it's called "Chepe".)

"Voy pa' Chepe" is all I ever needed to say when I was leaving town.

In the Campo

The word 'campo' most people learn as a word meaning 'countryside'. This meaning is still valid in Costa Rica, but perhaps a more common usage, even in "el campo" itself, employs the word as a synonym for 'space'.

For example, if someone is trying to squeeze through a small space around another person, she'll say "deme campo por favor".

The first time I heard someone asking me for some 'campo', I didn't know what to make of it. (I was either too slow to pick up on contextual clues, or I was just too caught up in the new language to function as a normal human being.) I ended up getting out of the way, but it was about a minute later when I fully understood that the person was not only asking for a little space, but that campo actually means 'space'. A real epiphany, I know.

¡Dame campo o dame la muerte! Sounds like a country song.

Pura Vida,


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.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Double Plural

In rural areas of Costa Rica you'll sometimes hear double plurals. The most common one would be for parents, popularly referred to as 'papases.' To make 'papá' plural to mean parents you really only need to add a single 's' at the end. Many Ticos, however, think of the plural 'papás' as the word for a single set of parents. When they're talking about a group of parents, though, they'll say 'papases'.

It may seem weird, but there's actually some decent reason behind it. Plus, it sounds kind of cool. I dig it.

If you want to read more extensive articles on rural Costa Rican Spanish, go to the Costa Rican Spanish articles on my website. If you're into the linguistic aspects of Costa Rican language, I recommend the two with the title "Not the King's Spanish". There are also some lighter reads as well.

Rapu Davi ;)

Christmas Bonus

Continuing the work theme, an important work vocab word for Costa Rica is the aguinaldo. Hold on to your hats, folks. In Costa Rica the state actually enforces an obligatory wage in the month of December for all employees, whether employed by the state or not, equivalent to a full month's salary (the average monthly salary for the year) on top of that month's salary. This aguinaldo has become a huge part of Costa Rican culture, as Ticos await this bookoo cash for holiday purchases.

Personally, I think the concept is a bit strange, especially since it's mandatory, but I must admit that it has its virtues. For example, it's nice to receive something at the end of the year. It's like Christmas, but for adults. Also, it does leave something to spend at the end of the year, whereas many people would otherwise spend their extra wages if they were evenly dispersed in their yearly paychecks.

One perceived virtue of the aguinaldo that, in my mind, is not a virtue at all is the idea of "free money" or "extra money." Costa Ricans often tell me, "it's so bad that there's no aguinaldo in the United States--the extra money at the end of the year helps us out." Now, as I stated before, the aguinaldo does help people save for the end of the year, but not everyone is best off with this "big brother" approach. If you ask me, I'd rather have that money dispersed in all of my paychecks, which is what my employer would use to calculate average monthly costs anyway! That's right, it's not free money. Employers know how much they'll need to spend on aguinaldos, so they'll pay you less than they otherwise would on a monthly basis to make up for it. Even more, they'll pocket that money they would have otherwise paid you each month until the very end of the year. So, they have your money for a whole year, leaving you to pay the opportunity cost of that cash, effectively decreasing--not increasing--your average monthly pay in real terms.

Ticos like their aguinaldo and I'm glad for it. I, however, would like my money now.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Work in Costa Rica

No, this isn't a how-to on getting a work visa. I'm going to introduce a few Costa Rican words that relate to work. Consider the following:

Brete, also used as a verb bretear, means job. This is a slang word, something you wouldn't find in the paper or on the news. However, Ticos will use this word in informal situations.

Oficio is another word for work, but it refers to household chores. In Costa Rica this is traditionally a woman's work. (I don't make the rules, I swear.) In rural areas you'll often hear women say "I need to get back home to hacer el oficio." (Please excuse the Spanglish.) This usually involves mopping the tile floors and, in rural areas, sweeping ceilings for cobwebs, termites, or wasp nests.

Terms for remuneration include chamba, which is a considerable amount of earnings, as well as una millonada, which would be a huge amount of money in the millions of colones, which essentially means thousands of US dollars. (Millonada is used most frequently in reference to lottery earnings.) These aren't particularly Tico words, but I hear them used often nonetheless.

Perhaps the most important work vocabulary has to do with what some would consider passive income. (Hey, it's no knock the Ticos--who doesn't like free money?) Pensión can refer to a pension earned after retirement ('retired' in Costa Rican Spanish is 'pensionado' whether or not the retiree has a pension to speak of), which for many government employees equals full pay for life. Pensión also refers to the child support that a Tico pays for each child not in his custody. Fortunately, the Costa Rican government does a good job of enforcing child support laws. Unfortunately, however, many Costa Rican men make a habit of having children with multiple women. (Again, don't blame the messenger--I don't make the rules!) I really don't know how they do it....well at least the part about them actually paying all that child support. Kids are expensive--even in Costa Rica.

Alright, good talk.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Where 1 means I

In Costa Rica, when a person uses 'uno' as a subject pronoun, she will almost always be speaking in the first person. 'Uno', in such a case, would essentially mean 'yo'. This is a very important cultural aspect of Costa Rican language that shows the Ticos' indirect nature.

To demonstrate exactly what I'm referring to, here's a quick example to get you caught up:

Uno no podría montar a caballo por tanto tiempo
[translation] I wouldn't be able to ride a horse for so much time

Perhaps this way of speaking first originated from Costa Ricans' tendency to speak indirectly and always take the explicit personal nature out of what they say. However, this language has become so pervasive over time that 'uno' simply means 'I' (or 'me'). Even more, the use of 'uno' to mean a more general 'one', as used in English, simply does not exist in Costa Rica. I know this because I've tried using 'one' in the more general third person sense and have confused the hell out of people as a result. I was doing a presentation for a rural community group and said something along the lines of "one not being able to do something." Well, that something was apparently a personal core competency. Admitting that "one" couldn't do it compelled everyone in the room to give me odd looks. I wasn't trying to refer to myself, but everyone in the room thought I was. I clarified the situation very quickly and moved on, but many foreigners never pick up on this subtlety because it goes much deeper than conventional, direct translations between English and Spanish. So, "one" can certainly sympathize ;)