On Costa Rican Dichos and Slang

Every country in the world has its own sayings and expressions. I am biased, but I believe that Costa Rica’s are among the most colorful, numerous and hilarious – and I think it is safe to say that Costa Ricans are much more conscious of, and proud to share, their sayings than many other peoples in the world. It will probably be a source of lifelong frustration to me that when I use them in conversation with people who don’t know me well, I will always be met with surprised laughter. I said in a meeting recently that I was “detrás del palo” (behind the tree/branch, which in the United States we would translate as being out of the loop) and triggered a flurry of amused chuckles.

I have learned most of my favorite phrases from my husband and friends, although I am indebted to Carlos Arauz’s “Dichos y refranes costarricenses – Frases y expresiones de nuestra habla popular” (2010), which I bought from the author at a book fair a few years back and found to be fascinating.

Some of the phrases I’ll present here are not specific to Costa Rica, though I hope to include here plenty of words and phrases from Costa Rican pachuco (slang of a complexity I think is comparable to rhyming Cockney), as well as popular expressions. Since Costa Rica is the only Spanish-speaking country in which I’ve ever lived for an extended period of time, I do not always know the difference, so I apologize for the hodgepodge. I also offer my apologies for any misinterpretations or errors I might make as a non-native speaker presenting, explaining and translating these expressions. After all, aunque el mono se vista de seda, mono se queda: even a monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey, and a gringa a gringa now matter how many chicharrones she’s eaten. (A lot, by the way.)

15 thoughts on “On Costa Rican Dichos and Slang

  1. HELLO MADAME ,HOW’VE YOU BEEN ? HERE’S ANOTHER PHRASE FOR YOU : ” AGARRESE DE ESE ESTROBO” IS PUNTARENAS SLANG ,MEANS :HOLD ON TO THAT ROPE . MEANING : IF YOU HAVE GOT SOMETHING GOOD AND SECURE JUST DON’T LET IT GO ! YOU MIGHT WANT TO RESEARCH IT EVEN FURTHER.

    GREETINGS . FELIX.

  2. HOWDY KATHERINE, HOW ARE YOU TODAY? I JUST REMEMBERED ANOTHER ONE WHICH GOES : ” ESTOY COMIENDO CABLE” LITTERALLY TRANSLATES AS : ” I AM EATING CABLE” MEANING : I’M DOWN AND OUT . IN SITUATIONS LIKE THIS : HEY COMO TE VA FELIX ? ESTOY COMIENDO CABLE MAJE …PORQUE ME QUEDE SIN BRETE. ! SALADO CHAVALO, BUSQUE BRETE !
    NOW REGARDING THE WORD “MAJE” THAT’S THE ORIGINAL WORD IT SPELLS WITH “J” IT SORT OF MORPHED INTO “MAE” OVER THE YEARS . COSTA RICAN YOUNGSTERS PRONOUNCE IT “MAE” PROBABLY DUE TO LAZINESS BUT PEOPLE THAT ARE OVER 40 OR 50 YEARS OF AGE LIKE MYSELF STILL SAY IT “MAJE” .
    JUEEEEEPUTA QUE GRINGA MAS GRANDE! HAPPY HOLIDAYS ! KATHERINE.
    FELIX.

  3. What about “cual bolsa?” I heard it everywhere when I lived in Costa Rica in the sixties. Now both the phrase and what it meant seem to have disappeared.

    • Hey, thanks Jack! What does that one mean? It’s new to me. I would love to do a column on phrases that have gone out of fashion (if that is indeed the case) or in danger of extinction…

  4. A bunch of us were in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica in the early sixties. Some of us spoke Spanish better than others, but we were all perplexed about “cual bolsa.” It was always a rejoinder- I’d say something about a bag or pocket, and somebody would ask “?Cual bolsa?” This was always said with a wink and a nod, and I assumed it had sexual innuendo, but I wasn’t sure.

    Nobody seems to remember the origin of the phrase or its meaning. It was used exclusively in Costa Rica (I had some buddies in El Salvador who never heard it), and has been attributed to former president Urlich, perhaps in response to something about the stock market. But that doesn’t fit the naughty laughter that always accompanied the question. I think it has something to do with “pocket,” and may be referring to a woman’s anatomy, but who knows? I’ve asked many Ticos, most of whom have never heard the phrase, or say it is “vulgar” or “street talk” and want to change the subject. In any case, it died out by the end of the decade. Could it have been a running joke on a radio show? A comedian’s catch phrase? Quine sabe?

  5. “CUAL BOLSA” USED TO BE USED AS A FORM OF VERBAL SELF DEFENSE FOR WHEN SOMEBODY ACCUSED YOU OF HAVING DONE SOMETHING THAT YOU DIDN’T DO THAT WAS THE PHRASE THAT YOU REPLIED TO THE ACCUSER FOR EXAMPLE : JACK YOU ATE ALL OF THE ICE CREAM THAT WAS IN THE REFRIGERATOR ! AND YOU WOULD REPLY : CUAL BOLSA ,I HAVEN’T BEEN HOME ALL DAY SOMEBODY ELSE DID IT !

  6. SOMETHING ELSE,MR. SHAKELY. “CUAL BOLSA” MEANS “WHICH BAG”! AND OFTEN TIMES SOMEBODY WOULD ANSWER “LA DEL CANGURO” “THAT OF THE CANGAROO”. [ IN REFERENCE TO A POUCH THAT CANGAROOS HAVE ] ,JUST TO BE FUNNY ,.AND THIS PHRASE HAS NO SEXUAL INNUENDO WHATSOEVER . SO THAT’S THE WORD SIR.

  7. A weird question for you – was recently in San Jose and was taught the word, “burrio’n,” for a wooden hummingbird I had hanging by the window.

    I just checked to find the spelling, and can’t find the danged word! Was somebody having fun at my expense?

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