San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Like a Donkey in a Boat’ About Costa Rican Idioms

The first time a Costa Rican said to me, “Estoy orinando (I am peeing), whoa! I couldn’t help myself. I jumped back and looked down. What I subsequently found out was that this is the way to say “I need to go potty” in Spanish.

This is what in Spanish is called a modismo and in English an idiom or idiomatic expression, that is, a figure of speech that does not make sense in its literal sense. An idiom is not slang, or pachuco, but rather a device used by all classes. Figures of speech are words and expressions that make their appeal through exaggerations like “no sooner said than done,” nonsensical combinations of words like “What’s up?” and comparisons like “The night was as black as sin,” or phrases like “I went out on a limb for you.”

Here is a list of some of the countless idioms commonly used in Costa Rica. I have tried to give, where possible, the literal translation along with the meaning, but often this doesn’t make sense because, by definition, these are nonliteral expressions.

a estas alturas (“at these heights”): by now, at this point

a lo chancho chingo (“naked pig-style”): without inhibitions

a más no poder (“to more not able”): to the utmost

a medio palo (“to half tree [or pole]”): half done, halfway through

a quemarropa (“at clothing burn”): point-blank

al pie de la letra (“to the bottom of the letter”): literally

al por mayor/menor (“to the greater/lesser”): wholesale/retail

buscarle tres pies al gato (“to look for three feet on the cat”): to complicate

como agua para chocolate (“like water for chocolate”): furious, hot under the collar (because water must be boiling hot to melt chocolate)

como burro en lancha (“like a donkey in a boat”): dead serious

como cucaracha en fiesta de gallinas (“like a cockroach at a hen party”): like a cat on a hot tin roof

con las manos en la masa (“with hands in the dough”): red-handed

corre la voz (“runs the voice”): rumor has it

cruzarse de brazos (“to cross one’s arms”): to do nothing, to remain indifferent

de mala muerte (“of bad death”): worthless, lousy

detrás del palo (“behind the tree”): clueless

duro de pelar (“hard to peel”): very difficult; also used to describe a confirmed bachelor

entre camagua y elote (“between the hard kernel stage and the tender corn”): wishy-washy

hablar paja (“to talk straw”): to speak nonsense

hablar sin pelos en la lengua (“to talk without hairs on the tongue”): to speak one’s mind

hecho y derecho (“done and upright”): all grown up

ir al grano (“to go to the grain”): to get to the point

¡Jale! “Pull!”: Beat it!

jugársela (“to play it for oneself”): to take the risk

llevarla suave (“to carry it soft”): to take it easy

llevarse bien (“to carry oneself well”): to get along (with)

llover sapos y culebras (“to rain toads and snakes”): to rain cats and dogs

mala ficha (“bad chip”): lowlife

media naranja (“half orange”): one’s better half

meter la pata (“to put in a paw”): to goof up

no tener ni donde caerse muerto (“to not have even where to fall dead”): to not have a red cent

¡Ojo! (“Eye!”): Watch out!

orinar fuera del tarro (“to pee outside the pot”): to get off the subject at hand

pagar los platos rotos (“to pay for the broken dishes”): to get blamed (wrongly)

¿Qué mosca te picó? (“What fly bit you?”): What’s the matter?

ropa americana (“American clothing”): secondhand clothing (usually shipped in from the United States)

¡Salado! (Salted!): Too bad! Out of luck!

salir con la suya (“to leave with one’s own”): to get away with it

tener buena cuchara (“to have a good spoon”): to be a good cook

tener que ver con (“to have to see with”): to have to do with

un no sé qué (“an I-don’t-know-what”): a certain something

In addition, there are certain verbs that have a large range of meanings, many of them idiomatic. I call these “catchall verbs,” and I have saved them for later articles.

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