Tico talk

I don’t usually have a taste for kitschy souvenirs, but in Costa Rica, whose beautiful lands my wife and I recently had the pleasure to visit, I couldn’t resist.

See, Costa Ricans – or Ticos, their more colloquial demonym – really know how to market to a very specific segment: tourists obsessed with etymology. Surely, I’m not alone.

My wife and I spent our last two nights in Costa Rica’s bustling capital, San José. We spent some time wandering its Mercado Central, almost as dense and labyrinthine as the lush and misty cloud forests we hiked just days before. Like the Grand Bazaar we wandered in Istanbul or the night markets in Bangkok, the Mercado Central vends its herbs, meats, household goods, clothing, Marian iconography, and casados to locals – and t-shirts, stuffed animals, keychains, jewelry, and knickknack carretas to tourists.

I tried to stay focused on my destination, Café Central, whose coffee was second only to the friendliness of its matronly baristas, but I was waylaid by a souvenir t-shirt:

It’s just not every day a souvenir boasts demonymy and etymology:

Tico t

As mentioned, Costa Ricans are popularly known as Ticos or Ticas. Spanish is lush with diminutive suffixes, such as –ita/-ito (e.g., casa > casita, perrocerrito). But Costa Ricans, apparently, have historically been fond of a different diminutive: –ico/-ica or –tico/-tica, depending on the word. So fond, in fact, that visitors to the country noted it in their speech and thusly nicknamed them. The OED records Tico as chiefly US slang and first attests in 1905. Ticos, as far as I can tell, at some point claimed it as their own.

While I didn’t notice its usage in Tico talk, I did see it employed in a variety of brand names: Teletica, Costa Rica’s first TV company, uses it, for instance. The more formal demonym, which I spotted on official buildings as we drove through the country, is costarricense.

After a memorable cup of coffee at Café Central, we decided to continue winding our away around San José. I opted out of a Tico t; I’d rather spend my remaining colónes on local food, alcohol, and coffee, as well as a few books in Spanish (Hamlet and Malkiel’s Etymology) and a few notebooks.

But diminutives, we should remember, don’t just express smallness; they can also communicate affection.

On our way back to our hotel, my wife had still had a few items she wanted to find for some family members. So, back at the Mercado Central, I enjoyed a coffee at a soda while she perused a few stalls. At one point, she asked me which color of a Tico t-shirt I thought her “nephew” would prefer. I pointed to the blue one.

Like I said, I’m not usually one for kitschy souvenirs, but, in no small part to the lovely culture and climes of Costa Rica, I’ll gladly wear this camiseta. Or should I say camisetica?

m ∫ r ∫


3 thoughts on “Tico talk

  1. You write, “But Costa Ricans, apparently, have historically been fond of a different diminutive: –ico/-ica or –tico/-tica, depending on the word.”

    To my knowledge, there is no Spanish suffix *-tico / *-tico.

    Rather, the second word in the frequent interjection ¡Un momentico! ‘one moment!’ (literally, ‘one short moment!’) was metanalyzed as momen + tico (the morpheme boundary is actually between moment- and -ico), hence the informal demonym tico.


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