San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Read This Chunche or You’re Just a Chúcaro

Aword is not a thing in itself. It is a symbol that stands for a thing or a quality or an idea.

Thus, it is arbitrary. I may refer to my vehicle as a “car,” “carro,” “macchina,” “voiture” or, for that matter, “Henry.” It doesn’t matter, as long as the person with whom I am trying to communicate is in agreement with the symbol I am using. This is logical.

Until, that is, I sit down to write a poem and find that I can go through five or 10 different words before I find one that gives me that “Aha!” feeling. Against all logic, I can’t tell you why, when there are several other words that stand for the same thing. It’s a mystery – and thank heaven for it.

Likewise, against all logic, certain words and expressions in everyday language have more charm than others. Here are some of my favorites in Costa Rican Spanish, many of which won’t be found in a standard dictionary. (Note that “pura vida” is not one of them.)

¡Acharita! or ¡Charita! “What a shame!” But we have to say it with a certain rhythm: ahchar-EEEEE-ta!

¡Guácala! or ¡Huácala! Yuck!

¡Ojo! Literally, “Eye!” It means, “Watch out!”

¡Suave! Literally, “Soft!” It means, “Wait a minute!”

¡Upe! It’s what Ticos say (or yell) when they knock on the door, much better than our moronic “Is anybody home?”

Acurrucarse. It means “to cuddle up” or “to curl up.” The charming part is that it imitates the sound a mother hen makes when she gathers her chicks around her.

Arroz con mango. When we mix things that don’t go well together, be it in a party list or the soup of the day, we have created “rice with mango.”

Bocaracá. A horrible poisonous snake with a beautiful name.

Cabanga. Nostalgia for something. It’s a tiquismo, so it’s not in the dictionary.

Chúcaro.Wild, untamed, skittish. Best of all, it can describe a person as well as a horse.

Chunche. Thingamabob. Chunches means “stuff.”

Con las manos en la masa. Literally, “with hands in the dough.” It means “red-handed.”

Lo sorprendieron con las manos en la masa (they caught him red-handed).

Consuegro, consuegra. My daughter-inlaw’s mother (or my son’s mother-in-law) is a good friend of mine, but what a way to have to describe her! In Spanish, I can simply take the word suegra (mother-inlaw), add con-, and in one word describe my relation to her. Mi consuegra es buena amiga mía.

Culindingo. It’s not in the dictionary, either. Apparently, it’s a word that is no longer used, but my husband uses it all the time. It refers to a person who is fussy about any and everything.

Dar a luz. Literally, “to give to light.” It means “to give birth,” but oh so poetically.

De mala muerte. Literally, “of bad death.” It means “crummy” or “lousy,” but it is not used to describe just anything. Comimos en un restaurante de mala muerte (we ate in a greasy spoon). Es un hotel de mala muerte (it’s a crummy hotel).

Escarabajo. Beetle. I swear this means “it is face down”: es (though it should be está), “it is” + cara, “face”+ abajo, “down.”

Estar de chicha. To be in a foul mood – as if hung over. Oh yes, chicha is booze brewed from corn.

Estar en la luna. “To be on the moon,” to be distracted or “spaced out.”

Güiri güiri. This is pronounced “gweary gweary” – well, more or less. It means “hassle,” and is usually used with mucho. No quiero hacer eso – mucho güiri güiri (I don’t want to do that – too much hassle).

Llave maya. “Mayan key.” No, it’s not some esoteric doodad for entering the spirit world. Called variously “travel drive,” “memory stick” and “removable disk” in English, it’s that little USB device that plugs into a computer and allows us to carry data from one computer to another. Come to think of it, maybe it is an esoteric doodad after all.

Pagar los platos rotos.When we have to take flak for something that isn’t our fault, we are the ones who, as the saying goes, “pay for the broken plates.”

Para el tigre. Anything that is no longer useful, be it food, furniture or failed romance, is deemed para el tigre(for the tiger). A tigre, in this part of the world, is a cougar or a jaguar.

Pata caliente. Literally, “hot paw.” it refers to a person who runs around a lot instead of staying home.

Patas arriba. Literally, “paws up.” It refers to disorder or dysfunction. La casa está patas arriba (the house is a real mess).

Pelo de gato. Literally, “cat hair.” It’s the fine misty rain we call “drizzle.”

Ruedacaca. Literally, “wheel poop.” It means “dung beetle.”

Vacilón. Something hilariously funny, a great time, as in ¡Qúe vacilón!

Yuyo. Pronounced “ju-jo,” it literally means “foot fungus,” but it also refers to a bothersome person, someone we might call a “pain in the neck.” I think “foot fungus” gets it better.

I’d love to hear some of your favorites. Please e-mail them to me at


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