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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Learning Costa Rica Spanish : A truly Crappy Language Lesson

“What’s so funny?” my husband asked as I cleaned coffee off our morning paper – the coffee I’d just spit up all over the page.

I read him the story aloud, and he raised his eyebrows at my apparently odd sense of humor and lack of regard for human life: it was a serious report about the death of a man in the city of Cartago. Then I got to the sentence in question, and he understood. “Germán Valverde Mora, 63 years of age, known as Caca ’e gato…”

I should mention that this was not a tabloid from the pulpería but La Nación, our newspaper of record. I don’t question their use of the man’s nickname; he was apparently a well-known local character whose real name was probably a mystery to most of those who knew him. It just surprised me to see such a terrible nickname in that particular context.

“Why, but why, would a man be known as ‘Cat Poop’?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he admitted, but did his best. “Maybe they were saying he was bad to the bone. There’s nothing worse than cat poop, you know. You get cat poop on a tin roof and it just eats right through it.”

To that, I had nothing to add.

The alias of don Germán (who was also eulogized in that day’s sports section as a lifelong fan of the local Cartaginés football club) is mostly indicative of Costa Rica’s love of nicknames, but it also got me thinking about that essential role played by, well, the bathroom in the proper use of informal Spanish, or any language.

It’s not pretty, that’s for sure, but if you’re going to speak Spanish long enough to get a flat tire, or deal with significant bureaucratic trámites, or watch sports of any kind, or navigate the workplace, you’re going to hear it.

I can’t do this elegantly or politely, so if a column about poop-related expressions is not to your taste, for which you have my utmost respect and admiration, this is the place to stop.

You should also exit now if you are reading this column aloud in front of your middle-school Spanish class; contact me for a replacement column entitled “10 Ways Costa Rican Kids Compliment their Teachers Daily.” (Or, keep going, make these expressions the topic of their next test, and watch as more Spanish is spoken in your classroom than ever before.)

Anyone still with me? Settle back on your chair – or if you’re really serious, your throne – and let’s begin.

First, we’ll take care of Number One. There’s the more correct orinar, and the coarser mear (akin to “piss”), which leads to the commonly heard phrase meando fuera del tarro — pissing outside the tin, or way off base, totally wrong, barking up the wrong tree. There’s also más larga que una orinada de balcón, mentioned in a previous column — longer than peeing off a balcony.

Next we’ll descend a bit further into the sewer and deal with some fecal matter. As in English, there is a whole scale beginning with heces for doctors, caca for kids or general semi-polite usage (akin to “poop”), and then your standard mierda, as in the very expressive and satisfying qué mierda (as your anger and frustration increase, lengthen the roll of the “r” accordingly); pura mierda (terrible, no-good, useless – heard very frequently during soccer games); or mierdero, a crappy situation.

Mierda, however, also plays part of the role that “hell” plays in English. In Spanish, you don’t send someone to eternal damnation, but rather down the crapper (váyase a la mierda). Finally, it appears that a colorful and now little-used way to depart a raucous gathering was to say, “Me voy a la mierda,” akin to smacking down your glass, pushing back from the bar and saying, “Well, boys, I’m going straight to hell.”

We’ll reach rock-bottom with cagar, the rudest word for defecation and the basis for a wide range of, let’s face it, very useful expressions. Many of them are akin in meaning and vulgarity to “screwed,” or maybe even closer to screwed’s f-bomb cousin. Someone screwed up? Se cagó.

A royal screwup? Una cagada. Someone is screwed, in general? Está cagado. Someone screwed up so badly that everyone else is screwed, too? Se cagó en todo(s). Someone really, really, really screwed up? One of my favorite all-time expressions in any language: Se cagó en la olla de leche, or, in the pot of milk. This is such a gross, disturbing and vivid image that I can’t think of a better way to describe a truly epic fail.

You can be cagado(a) de miedo (scared to death) or cagado(a) de risa (laughing your head off). Interestingly, the latter expression also has an alternate meaning: it can refer to someone who is crazy lucky, with an implication that she doesn’t deserve it. For example, someone who is being paid a kingly salary with very little responsibility, a topic of heated debate in Costa Rica recently, might be described this way, along the lines of the British use of “laughing.” Cagarle a alguien is to give him a huge scolding, to chew him out.

Finally, to say that someone’s son or daughter (child or adult) is cagadito is a way to say that he or she looks just like the parent, and not in a good way. In other words, “She looks just like you, poor thing.”

It’s a classic example of the Costa Rican choteo — what I would define as “friendly banter that would probably make an unpracticed gringa like me cry if it were directed my way.”

I lack the thick skin that would allow me to be told my offspring are as ugly as I am, and take it in stride — although there are also gender dynamics at play, since this insult is generally directed at dads, not moms. I think it’s safe to say that women in any culture aren’t too thrilled about comments implying their kids look unfortunate.

This concludes my terribly inappropriate tangent; we now return to our scheduled programming. Stay tuned for next month’s installment, which will focus on something entirely pleasant and high-minded. Terms of endearment, perhaps?

Popular expressions at high tea on rainy San José afternoons? The proper way to increase the number of subjunctives and conditionals in a request according to the social status of the recipient? (Me permito solicitarle respetuosamente que valore la posibilidad de perdonarme por la columna desagradable sobre mierda.) I promise, it’ll be clean enough for church coffee hour.

Then again, if you get in a fender-bender on the way to church, or your car breaks down because your mechanic is monumentally stupid, or the priest’s son (who looks just like him, poor thing) drops the communion wine, you’ll be prepared.

Recommended: The amazing true story of tuanis and brete — words to be thankful for

See also: You can’t speak Spanish without huevos       

Read previous Maeology columns here.

Katherine Stanley Obando isa freelance writer, translator and former teacher. She lives in San José.

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