San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Happy Endings: Spanish Suffixes Spice Things Up

I think most of you know that Costa Ricans are affectionately called “Ticos” because of a suffix (a group of letters added to the end of a word, modifying its meaning).

Ticos tend to use the suffix -ico with a word containing a t just before the o or a, instead of the usual -ito that most Spanish speakers use. Thus, a gato (cat) that is small or a kitten is a gatico, And while caliente means “hot,” calientico means “warm.” Sometimes, in order to get at the tico, Costa Ricans will add the -ito with the -ico on top of it: casitica (little house). Spanish, like English and many other languages, makes extensive use of suffixes.

However, unlike English, Spanish contains a great many endings with idiomatic meanings that express a quality, such as smallness or ugliness, cases in which English speakers usually just use an added or different word. For example, while we might say “little house” or “cottage,” a Spanish speaker will say “casita.” For want of a better term, we’ll call these “idiomatic suffixes.”

With idiomatic suffixes, we can, in fact, add just about any quality we want to words.

They can be used with a variety of parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, adverbs, present and past participles. But handle with care: they cannot be used indiscriminately. What works for one word will not necessarily work for another. Moreover, they don’t always mean what they are supposed to mean, and sometimes they are even used ironically. They may change gender, and sometimes they change the meaning of a word. Finally, they are inconsistent and whimsical. If we happen to use an idiomatic suffix in the wrong way, we can sound ridiculous or even insult someone. Idiomatic suffixes are rather like three-inch heels –charming and treacherous.

Therefore, my advice is that you first learn to use just a few of these delightful, double-crossing devices. Later, when you are used to them, you will more easily pick up the others.

The most reliable of these is what grammarians call the “absolute superlative.” It takes the place of the English adverbs “very” or “extremely,” or the adjectives “many,” “a lot,” etc. The word it creates is always an adjective. It is formed by adding -ísimo or -ísima, depending on the gender of the word. Thus, if instead of saying, “This course is hard” (Este curso es difícil), you want to say, “This course is very hard,” you can say, “Este curso es dificilísimo.”

Take the following sentences as examples:

–Clara es una mujer inteligentísima. (Clara is a very intelligent woman.)

–Esta toronja es amarguísima. (This grapefrui is extremely bitter.)

–Tengo muchísimos libros de Isabel Allende. (I have very many of Isabel Allende’s books.)

–Hay muchísimas mariposas aquí. (There are a great many butterflies here.)

And what if, for example, you want to say,

“This course is very, very hard”? Granted, you probably won’t find this in a grammar book, but you can say, if you can wrap your tongue around it, “Este curso es dificilisísimo.

You can even add more -is’s if you

want. Just don’t get carried away.

The following is a list of fun idiomatic

suffixes and some of their uses. Some of

them are universal, and some are typically

Costa Rican. However, I again repeat: handle

with care.

You are already familiar with the suffixes

-ito and -ico, which make things smaller and

which, by the way, often express affection.

There are others:


pan (bread) _ panecillos _ rolls (“little breads”)

sombra (shade) _ sombrilla _ umbrella (“small shade”)


bus (bus) _ buseta _ minibus


pollo (chicken) _ polluelo _ chick (also pollito)

Watch out. A mujerzuela is a trashy woman (The z is added for sound), and rayuela (from rayo, “ray”) is hopscotch.

You can also enlarge with idiomatic suffixes, but only with caution, for at times they convey the idea of ridiculousness, monstrosity or even greatness. The most commonly used augmentative suffix is -ón.

Often, but not always, it turns a feminine word masculine.

¡Mira qué nubarrones! (Look at the heavy clouds!)

It is used in a variety of different expressions:

aventar (to fan, “to beat it”) _ aventón (ride, as in to get a ride in a car)

caja (box) _ cajón (bed of a truck)

carta (letter) _ cartón (cardboard)

vacilar (to joke) _ vacilón (something hilarious, a great time)

soplar (to blow) _ soplón(a) (informer or “snitch”)

dormir (to sleep) _ dormilón(a) (sleepyhead)

comer (to eat) _ comelón(a) (glutton)

llorar (to cry) _ llorón(a) (crybaby)

Somehow, Spanish speakers seem to have gotten confused about rats and mice. The word for rat is rata, but the word for mouse is ratón. To correct this error, people often refer to mice as ratoncitos, thus combining two opposites. The same trick gets played with the word calza (stocking or breeches). Calzoncillos refers to men’s undershorts while calzones refers to women’s panties. Then again, sometimes, Spanish gets downright ironic. The word for hair is pelo. A hairy person is peludo, but a bald person is a pelón.

Another augmentative, used much less frequently, is -ote:

Mira qué ojotes tiene esta niña. (Look what big eyes this little girl has.)

I said that idiomatic suffixes were whimsical. Note here that you can say ojotes, but you cannot say ojones. Moreover, palabra means “word,” but the term for “obscene word” is palabrota.

One of the more interesting idiomatic suffixes is -azo.Not only does it mean big; it also means great, even beautiful. If you have ever had to listen to a Costa Rican sportscaster yelling “Gooooooooooool – ¡golazo!” you know now that a golazo is a great goal. Not only this, -azo can mean a physical blow of some kind. Here are some words used with -azo and their derivatives.

balde (bucket) _ baldazo (big rainstorm)

bomba (bomb, pump) _ bombazo (a hard blow, a drink of liquor)

puerta (door) _ portazo (the slamming of a door)

machete (machete) _machetazo (a machete blow)

bola (ball) _ bolazo (blow with a ball)

chupar (to suck) _ chupetazo (a big kiss)

The suffix -izo or -dizo (the d is for sound) is added to some adjectives to form a word that describes what someone or something is like:

enfermo (sick) _ enfermizo (sickly)

rojo (red) _ rojizo (reddish)

enojado (angry) _enojadizo (irritable, easily annoyed)

The suffix -eño denotes likeness:

águila (eagle) _ aguileño (aquiline)

risa (laugh) _ risueño (smiling)

Children – and a lot of adults as well –love to learn how to give out insults in another language. Here, then, are some fun pejorative suffixes. Try not to abuse them:

-acho and -uzo (bad, trashy) _ populacho,

gentuza (mob, rabble)

-ucho (ugly) _ casucha (ugly house)

-astro (inferior) _ poetastro (bad poet)

Note that -astro is also used for step-relatives: madrastra (stepmother); padrastro (stepfather); hermanastra (stepsister); hermanastro (stepbrother).

In conclusion, it is noteworthy to see how many words can come out of one word by adding suffixes. For example, from mamar (to suckle), amamantar (to nurse a baby) and mamá (mommy), we get: mamacita (“baby” or “babe,” said of an adult woman); mamada (a sucking action, also an x-rated meaning); mamarracho (an ugly figure or ornament, a sissy); mamelón (a hill in the form of a breast); mameluco (a silly man, a one-piece baby pajama, an overall); mamón(a), mamantón(a) “a suckling, a baby still nursing); mamulón (a very large baby or adult).Wouldn’t you know it? Motherhood always gets a lot of attention here.


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