San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

A lo Tico’: On Costa Rican Spanish

Books, my mother used to say, are friends. Among those on my shelves that are instructive and humorous at the same time is “A lo Tico” (“The Tico Way”), a small, handy paperback, its blue cover decorated with a painted oxcart. This Spanish-Spanish reference book features typical, colloquial Costa Rican expressions, anecdotes related to the language and the particular vocabulary used in the country. Moreover, it’s a fascinating introduction to Tico mentality and idiosyncrasies.

“‘A lo Tico’ is not a heavy tome but a legible language book readers can have fun with,” says Alf Giebler, 58, an engineer, multilingual language enthusiast and author of the book. “At the same time, I want to bring to mind Tico Spanish, helping to keep it alive as something truly Costa Rican.”

Born in Ingoldstadt, Germany, Giebler was 10 months old when he came to Costa Rica, where he grew up bilingual. Tico at heart, he had the idea for the book for many years, but it was not until the beginning of 2001, while he was based in Ireland with his family, that he started the project. Working for a multinational U.S. company, Giebler has traveled extensively, mostly in Latin America. In conversations with Latin friends and colleagues, Giebler noticed the many different ways Spanish is used from Argentina to Chile and Venezuela.

When he wrote his friends a Christmas letter entitled, “As We Ticos Say It,” the response was so overwhelmingly positive that he decided to realize his dream: a collection of “costarriqueñismos y otras vainas” (Costa Rican words, idioms and other stuff), which became the subtitle of “A lo Tico.”

“Especially during the night hours, I was able to concentrate on something totally different from my daily routine,” Giebler recalls. “I began rereading relevant Costa Rican literature, wrote down numerous headwords and began to put them in order on the computer.”

A few months later, the Gieblers were back in Tiquicia, where Costa Rican friends Daniel Alfaro, Mauricio Avalos and Luis Escalante encouraged and supported the author during the writing process. Alfaro and Avalos also contributed to the preface of the book.

Talking to newcomers in Costa Rica, Giebler observed how easily misunderstandings and frustrations can occur, simply because the meaning of Tico expressions is not fully understood in the context of the conversation.

“Language is important,” Giebler says. “It’s a door opener. The more you know about it, the better you understand what is said between the lines – it’s your access to (a person’s) mentality.”

“A lo Tico” has 216 pages and is especially unique because of its first part, featuring Costa Rican idiosyncrasies through anecdotes, dialogues and comparisons between Tico Spanish and that of other regions.

The author explains the Costa Rican passion for diminutives, giving things a loving note of simplicity and modesty. Here, a dessert is not un postre but un postrecito, and the circus (circo) that is coming to town is called a cirquillo.

Ticos love to describe situations through comparisons, and the possibilities seem to be endless: “No había sitio ni para un suspiro” (“There wasn’t even room for a sigh”), or “Los abogados son como los bananos, no hay uno recto” (“Attorneys are like bananas; there are no straight ones”).

According to Giebler, 100% Tico sayings include pura vida (pure life) and maje or mae (“man”), a common expression used among Tico men.

In other chapters, the author demonstrates how Costa Ricans ironically make fun of each other (el choteo), while nicknaming is a playful Costa Rican sport from which no one escapes. Expressions such as “un día de estos” (“one of these days”) may cause misunderstandings.

Ticos, explains Giebler, tend to try to avoid commitments, and use the aforementioned idiom to finish a subject or conversation in a nonbinding but polite and elegant way.

Spanglish is another topic of the book. More and more anglicisms are becoming staples of the language, such as bistec (beefsteak, or steak), cofiméiquer (coffeemaker), greifrut (grapefruit), imeil (e-mail), overjol (overhaul) and zíper (zipper).

The second part of Giebler’s book is a Tico-Spanish dictionary including more than 1,600 words and idioms frequently used in Costa Rica. From abanico (fan or ventilator) to zopilote (vulture), readers find useful Spanish-Spanish translations and examples of how and when to adequately use the vocabulary.

Giebler says his book project was a rewarding and enriching experience. He dedicated it to all Costa Ricans, as well as to those advanced Spanish speakers interested in the topic. The author not only created, designed, financed and marketed the book, he also made new friends and reconnected with old ones who found it on the Internet.And Ticos vouch for the authenticity of their language featured in the book.

The first edition was printed in April 2003. A revised and expanded edition came out in May 2005.

The book is available for about ¢3,350 ($6.50) at Lehmann and Internacional bookstores, as well as the German deli Tom-Tom in the western San José suburb of Escazú.

“A lo Tico,” a unique member of my book collection, is evidence of the playful, metaphorical and at times hilarious liveliness of the Tico language. As Daniel Alfaro puts it in the preface, “Nuestra lengua es más que viva, vivaz” (“Our language is more than alive; it’s lively.”)

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