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Now that I have lived in Costa Rica for a relatively long amount of time, I feel as though I can comment on the language variances with sufficient knowledge. However, I still do not claim to be an expert; I learn new things every day. The rest of this post is going to be a bit like a categorized dictionary or phrase book. These lists are by no means exhaustive.



A “refrán” is a proverb or wise saying. Often times they are meant to give advice, other times they are simply a comment on humanity. Because of the universality of “refranes,” it is not uncommon to find English equivalents. These tend to be used by the older generation, but are still understood by the younger generations too. There are thousands of these little sayings and sometimes it is a little difficult to grasp their meanings, but I have found them to be very interesting and sometimes even entertaining.

“No todo lo que brilla es oro.” Translation/English equivalent: “Not all that gleams is gold.”

“Cada oveja con su pareja.” Translation: “Every sheep with its pair.” It means that people will look for, hang out with, and be more comfortable with those who are similar to them. Anyone who knows anything about sheep will understand this saying completely.

“Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda.” Translation: “Although you dress a monkey in silk, a monkey it remains.” It means that personality and character qualities, especially those in bad taste, are evident and can’t be changed no matter what you do with appearances.


“Dichos” o “Jerga”

These are popular sayings in a specific region or country. These form a part of common speech and are not part of formal Spanish. In other words, they are not in the dictionary and would be considered slang. Some of the following words overlap with the next section titled “Pachuco.”

“Mae.” Translation: dude. This is most common amongst the young male population. Often it is not in any way an integral part of the sentence, but it’s there in excessive quantity. Sometimes this word can be used to describe an unknown person. For example: Un mae me preguntó por algunas direcciones cuando estuve caminando a mi casa. In English: Some guy asked me for directions when I was walking home.

“Pura Vida.” Translation: “pure life.” This phrase and “mae” are the pinnacles of Costa Rican “dichos.” This phrase can be used in many diverse situations, and because of this, it was at first very difficult for me to understand what it meant (beyond the direct English translation). It can be used as a greeting, in place of “I’m doing well,” in place of “thank you” and “you’re welcome,” as a description of an activity or lifestyle, and, in reality, whenever one wishes to use it. This flexibility in usage is still very intriguing to me.

“Tuanis.” Translation: cool. “Chiva.” Translation: cool. These two words are almost identical in meaning and usage; their differences are very slight and not worth mentioning.

“Tome Chichí.” Translation: Take that; a derivative of touché. The word chichí means little kid and is specific to Costa Rica. This phrase is like saying, “oh, burn!” or “take that.” If two friends are arguing and one gives a smart comeback, this phrase could be said to the one that got “burned.”

“Todo bien.” Translation: All’s well. Most often this is heard as a question, sort of like “what’s up?” but it can also be used simply as a statement.

“Diay” Translation: unknown. It was originally “d-i-ay,” and then later morphed into the current word. When I said that I learn new things all the time, I wasn’t lying; I learned this last week. How I missed it, I am not exactly sure. There really isn’t a good translation either. It is sort of like “mae” in that it can be dropped in almost any conversation and from what I can gather it is sort of a conglomerate of “Hey,” “Hi,” “Um,” “Oops,” and “Oh!” What is means depends entirely on the circumstances.

“Al chile.” Translation: Seriously? This is another phrase that I had heard, but had never quite grasped the exact meaning from just context alone and I eventually had to ask. For those of you who know a little bit of Spanish, it is basically an equivalent of “en serio?”

“Rajado.” Translation: wow, woah. The meaning of this word is still a bit vague to me. It is a remark used in a variety of exaggerated situations—things that are just way too good to be true, or way to bad to be true. It’s often said, “!Qué rajado!”



This is the name for a very specific style of Costa Rican slang. It is an extremely informal way of speaking, uses a lot of dichos, and is usually fairly vulgar. Many of the dichos mentioned above, especially “mae,” are used in pachuco. It is so different from Spanish that I don’t understand it. I would give a list of the words that I do know, but all the ones that I am familiar with are vulgar. What can I say? I hang out with college kids.



These are jokes and are common in every culture. For a long time they were very hard for me to understand. It was, and sometimes still is, common for a joke to be said in class and everyone laughs and I remain quiet with a cocked head and confused expression. Sometimes, speaking honestly, I laugh anyway. You know what I am talking about—that fake laugh, as your eyes bounce from person to person, hoping that nobody can guess that you have no idea of what just happened. In general this happens less now, though I usually do not attempt jokes for fear that it won’t make sense or be funny. Cultural humor is a strange thing to say the least.



This is a defining characteristic of Costa Rican speech, so much that the Costa Ricans are nicknamed for it. Costa Ricans affectionately call themselves “Ticos” because they use diminutives so much. In Spanish they take the diminutives usually take the form of –ito/a and –ico/a at the end of nouns or adjectives. It doesn’t necessarily mean that what is being described is small in size or portion; it’s just the way they speak here.


“El Voseo”

One of the other features of Costa Rican Spanish is the presence of “el voseo” an alternative of “el tuteo” or “tú,” the informal form of “you.”  In Costa Rica, “tú” is understood, but it is not used. The formal form of “you” is widely used, especially in the conservative and formal Central Valley. Although perhaps not widely known, “el voseo” is quite common in Latin and South America; it’s not just some strange conjugation form in Costa Rica.


I hope you enjoyed this post!


One Response to “Tico-isms”

  1. John Allen Says:

    Your blog is wonderful, especially these language tips! My girlfriend is studying in Heredia next semester through IFSA-Butler as well and even has your same host family! Thanks for the work you put into your blog!

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