When it comes to using a word or nickname to describe another person, the average Costa Rican is refreshingly un-politically correct. An overweight guy will be called Gordo (Fatty). An underweight guy will be called Flaco (Skinny).
A bald headed fellow likely will be called Pelon. Aman with a large moustache will typically be called Bigoton (literally, ‘Large Moustache’). A person who appears to be of Native American descent will answer to Indio. A fair skinned person will be called Macho or Macha. A dark-skinned person will be addressed as Negro. No offense is intended.
Besides outstanding physical characteristics, one’s place of birth or nationality will often be employed in parceling out a nickname. A Cuban is called Cubano, a Nicaraguan is called Nica.
Anyone from North America, or even Europeans who could be mistaken for people from the US
are called Gringo.
I have a brother-in-Law who sometimes addresses me as Gringo. He does not say it in an insulting manner, the way a sinister Mexican movie bandido would (Ayyy! Grrrinnngooo! You looking for trouble here in Jalisco, Grrinnnngooo?).
My Brother-in-Law is Costa Rican, and a few years older than me, so I respond to his greeting by calling him either Tico or Viejo (Old Man). Again, no offense is taken either way.
Any person of Central or Eastern Asiatic descent is automatically called Chino. Actually, any
person whose eyes are vaguely oriental looking will also be called Chino. So Chino can be
defined as either:
- Chinese person
- East Asian person
- Person whose eyes somewhat resemble those of a Chinese person
I have tried on occasion to explain to Ticos why they shouldn’t simply label every Asian appearing person as Chino. “What would you think,” I like to say, “if I referred to you all as Mexicanos?” Of course, the typical reaction is that Mexicans are from Mexico, and Costa Rica is not part of Mexico.
Indeed, if you drew a map of the world from the Tico perspective, most of the countries of North, Central and South America would be included, but the rest of the world would likely be three land masses labeled Africa, China, and The Place Where The Gringos Not From North America Live.
Animal nicknames are also common. I know three different Ticos who are called Pato (Duck),
because they walk with slightly outturned feet. I also know two guys known as Gato (Cat) due to
their light-colored eyes.
Every town has at least one Lobo, one Mapache (Raccoon), one Caballo. This flood of nicknames makes for some interesting conversations, especially when translated into English. I recently spent some time at a downtown restaurant listening to a conversation among several Ticos seated at the bar. The following is a translated transcript of the highlights:
CHINO: “Hey Skinny, How you doing?”
FLACO: “Life is good, Chinese-looking Guy. And you?”
CHINO: “More or less. I was talking to Cuban and Indian about the problems I’m having with
Duck. If Duck doesn’t finish the work, I paid him for they said I should call Columbian or Cat Eyes
for help. What do you think?”
FLACO: “Well, Chinese-looking Guy, I don’t know about Columbian or Cat Eyes. If I was you I
would call either Fatty or Big Beard.”
CHINO: “Fatty is busy with Gringo John. I haven’t talked with Big Beard since we did that work
for Chinaman and Raccoon.”
FLACO: “Well then, I don’t know. What do you think of all this Little Black Guy?”
NEGRITO: “I don’t like Big Beard. I think Big Moustache is the guy to call.”
FLACO: “Little Black Guy says Big Moustache is better than Big Beard. You should call Big
CHINO: “Big Moustache had to go to Chepe to pick up something for Little Horse. I might want
to call Baldhead instead.”
At this point I was too lost to continue listening. Later they were joined by their friends Cuban,
Dogface and Wolf and the conversation really heated up. I had to leave at this point, as I was late for a meeting with a Tico acquaintance known simply as Juan. I promised myself that I would someday give my friend Juan a colorful nickname to help him get with the program.