I awoke a little later than my usual 5:30-6:00 am this morning, mostly because it was a little darker than normal. Pulling open the drapes revealed a dreary, cloudy day, but my first words were, “mañana oscura, tarde segura.” Literally, this means, “dark morning, certain afternoon,” but what it really means is that a dark morning will certainly become a nice afternoon.
As an aside, I’ll just say that I’m one of those people who talk out loud to themselves. And that running conversation goes on in English and in Spanish–mostly in Spanglish, actually. This is true for many bilingual persons, and it’s simply because different languages have more precise, or more satisfying ways to express certain concepts.
I learned my Spanish primarily by natural immersion in the cradle of family, and because my grandmother’s language was sprinkled with old timey sayings, I picked those up, too. Then, I was married to two Costa Ricans (no, not at the same time!) and being around them and their brothers and friends resulted in a whole new realm of vocabulary, much of which I don’t use!
This train of thought led me to thinking about some of the interesting ways Ticos express themselves—idioms you might not find in your guide books. They’re known as “tiquismos” spelled this way to preserve the hard “c” sound.
Of course everyone knows the one phrase Costa Rica is most famous for, Pura Vida, a phrase that encompasses an attitude of heart and soul, and a positive state of mind. How are you? How’s it going? Pura vida! I’m good, everything is going well. That person is a good person, easy to get along with, great to do business with, fun to be around—they’re pura vida. See you later, have a great day, catch you later, that would be great! All these can be expressed with pura vida. And if you come to Costa Rica and find that you never want to leave, we might say you’ve found your Pura Vida vibe.
Then there’s this little gem: amarrar el perro, to tie up the dog, but which actually means a failure to pay up, not paying a debt, or really ripping somebody off (as we say in the U.S.). For example, “I thought he was a good guy, but a José le amarró el perro – he left José hanging with the debt. There are several theories on the origin of this one–none sound credible to me! He left the dog tied up at Jose’s house as though he was going to return, but then didn’t come back. Hmmm. I don’t know about this one.
If you’re at a meeting or get together where almost nobody comes, you can say that only four cats showed up—llegaron cuatro gatos, or eramos cuatro gatos—we were four cats.
A saying might mean something completely different from its similar English counterpart. For example, to be “on the wagon,” montado en la carreta here means to be drinking alcohol or in a state of drunkeness, which is the total opposite of its meaning in American English. It goes back to the origins of the expressions; to be “on the wagon” in the U.S. was to be on the water wagon, so not drinking alcohol. But in Costa Rica, an oxcart driver was supposed to walk beside his oxen and not ride in the cart. If he was riding, it was presumed he was too inebriated to walk. So if you tell someone here you’re on the wagon, be prepared for a confused or amused look in response.
One of my favorites is, cada loco con su tema—each crazy person with his topic, which is obvious when you’re in a group and at least one person only wants to talk about what is on their mind, despite attempts to change the conversation. Now that you know this one, I promise you’ll think of it going forward!
One that is heard less often these days but that is rich in meaning is camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente. Literally it’s “the shrimp that sleeps is carried away by the current.” It’s about missed opportunities, laziness, missing out on life, finding yourself in a bad position due to not taking action. It’s about the current of life flowing continuously and how doing nothing and being caught up in it has its consequences.
Al mal tiempo buena cara–to hard times a good face, or simply, make the best of a difficult period. Unfortunately I hear this one more often these days, but the message is clear—don’t let it get you down, hard times come but having a positive attitude will get you through.
There’s another major family of Costa Rican refranes that I’ll get to another day, because the root word güevo has inspired such an awesome collection of terms and sayings, that it’s deserving of a dedicated article.
For now, I wish you a beautiful day, because while I’ve been writing, the rain has stopped, the clouds are clearing, and the sun is trying to break through. For today it seems entirely likely that the “mañana oscura” will indeed become a “tarde segura.”
Image: All personal photographs. Painting and photo of farmhouse where my grandmother was born, typical oxcart at Café Britt, old relief map.