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As a political observer, I have found living in Costa Rica to be hugely freeing. In the United States, I tend to approach politics the way I watched “The West Wing” — passionate, emotional, hugely invested in a particular outcome. I bite my nails, agonize and have nightmares (at least during campaign season). I know that some of what I’m seeing is absurd and even entertaining, but I am unable to enjoy it because there is too much at stake.
In Costa Rica, however, I approach politics the way I watch “House of Cards” — that is, able to relish the good, the bad and the ugly in a different way, evaluating the individuals more than the parties involved.
I’m not saying that I don’t care deeply about the issues facing Costa Rica. I certainly do care. Nor am I making any comparisons between TV shows and the real-life politics of either country. It’s just that when you’re in a country where you can’t vote, didn’t grow up with one party’s signs identifying your house and your room, didn’t meet candidates in your New Hampshire neighborhoods and make up campaign ditties for them in your spare time — yes, I was that kid — you don’t ride the roller coaster in the same way. You watch it from the ground.
When it comes to language, I feel something similar. In English, I’m a crotchety old-school grump. I am an editor and a former English teacher, and happily embody the worst qualities of both, brandishing a red pen and waging a warring battle against change.
I hate the use of “impact” as a verb. I correct split infinitives, even though I know that’s a nonsensical, knee-jerk reaction based on an idealization of Latin. I cringe at the word “trending.” When a common error becomes so widespread that it gets incorporated into the dictionary, I feel downright betrayed (I’d give some examples, but my blood pressure would go through the roof).
In Spanish, I have no such loyalties. I have the tone deafness of the second-language learner: I lack the linguistic radar and cultural context that allows a native speaker to understand when someone is using a current, new-fangled or old-fashioned term.
Recently, I began to wonder what terms in Costa Rica have gone out of style, but I realized I couldn’t think of one. I had to turn to friends and Facebook for ideas.
The responses flooded in as people remembered words and phrases on the lips of their grandparents. Most of them required several layers of translation by my husband or the fascinating Costa Rican dictionaries that our landlord, having seen my post, brought by for my perusal.
Here is a very random sampling, representing a topic I would love to explore much more: “Se lo llevó Candanga” — the devil took him, or, in other words, it all went wrong. “Acharita” — what a pity. “Esos son otros cien pesos,” or “Eso es arena de otro costal” are both ways to say “That’s another kettle of fish,” which, come to think of it, is pretty dated in English as well.
“Merenjunge” is any natural remedy — “I went to Doña Rosa and she gave me a merenjunge.” “Corrongo” is pretty or handsome, an outdated word that apparently was used mostly by the upper classes.
These expressions are floating away on the inevitable tides of change that any language experiences. But, of course, more systematic change is taking place as well. Observers of the Spanish language bemoan a general dumbing down of the language just as I do in English. And then there’s Spanglish, which, depending on your perspective, is either eating away at the language like a cancer, or performing a natural function of linguistic evolution.
The more I learn about linguistic history, the more I lean, reluctantly, towards the latter interpretation. I might dislike newer arrivals like “textear” or “friquear” (to freak out), but at the same time, words I use every day, such as “queque,” “carro” and “tiquete,” have already moved Costa Rican or Latin American Spanish away from its roots in Europe, where these words are “pastel,” “coche” and “boleto.”
Let’s face it — change is a part of language, and one of the most fascinating things about it. When I taught young Mexican-Americans in Arizona, we did a quick review of the history of language, especially the way Latin evolved into the Romance languages, and the varied roots of English. We also studied Spanglish, a language in which many of the students were proficient. One of the more studious kids came up to me, wide-eyed. “So we’re making a new language? Right here, right now?” It was a mind-blowing moment for him, and for me as well. I had never thought about it quite that way.
In the end, living abroad and undertaking a more cool-headed and detached view of both language and politics has taught me a great deal. I’ve become more realistic about my own political party and leaders back home, understanding that the politicians I revered growing up were flawed humans within a flawed system. And my limited observation of the changes of Spanish has showed me that really, we are all simply sticking our feet into a rushing river that started far upstream of us and will continue on long beyond our last word. Actually, a better analogy would be that while we think we’re on a solid bank, we’re actually afloat; the rules and regulations we’re fighting to preserve were once, themselves, the outliers.
Words I think of as standard, because of my limited knowledge, were included in the Diccionario of the Real Academia Española as Costa Rican upstarts within the past couple of decades. These words include purete (a significant or weak person), binear (to spy on your neighbors or stick your nose where it’s not wanted), vacilar (to make fun), or, of course, the ubiquitous ahuevar.
Does that mean we shouldn’t fight for our political party, or against prepositions at the end of sentences? Certainly not. Perspective is essential in life, to keep us from being permanently friqueados. But at some point, you’ve got to take a stand and say, “This is what I believe,” or “Up with this I will not put.”
We need detachment, but we need passion, too. Otherwise, well, se nos lleva Candanga.
(What about you? What are the rules or phrases you’d fight to preserve, or the new expressions you’d rather keep at bay? You know what to do – haga clic below to enviarme un mail.)
Read previous Maeology columns here.
Katherine Stanley Obando is The Tico Times’ arts and entertainment editor. She also is a freelance writer, translator, former teacher and academic director of JumpStart Costa Rica. She lives in San José. Read more from Katherine at “The Dictionary of You,” where she writes about Costa Rican language and culture, and raising a child abroad. “Maeology” is published twice monthly. Write to her at email@example.com.