Chapter 1: The Quest for Pura Vida

Irreplaceable Spanish Words

When I came to Costa Rica, I sacrificed my ability to express myself properly so I could learn a new language.  When I returned to the U.S. at the end of last year, I learned there was just a bit of a backlash in returning my own tongue.  I discovered gaps I had never realized existed in English, things that I had learned to easily express in Spanish.

Nearly all of my friends last semester were bilingual to some extent: either fellow exchange students learning Spanish or Ticos learning English.  I wasn’t really capable of communicating myself well enough to have a good friendship with someone completely in Spanish.  As a result, I became accustomed to speaking a sort of Spanglish with varying degrees of proportion of English and Spanish, depending on whom I was talking to.  Even when I was speaking completely in English with the other exchange students, I had the option of substituting in a Spanish word or two if I felt like it.

Turns out you can’t do that with people who don’t understand Spanish, so every once in a while in Texas, I found myself trying to translate my thoughts into English when they wanted to be expressed in Spanish, a phenomenon that is all too familiar but al revés when I speak Spanish.

I read an article today about words that don’t directly translate from Spanish to English, many of which I don’t relate to, either because they’re not commonly used in Costa Rica, or because they haven’t become an important part of my personal vocabulary, so I decided to make a list of my own.

–As a side note, in that article I learned a new definition of the word “estrenar,” which I already knew to mean “to premier.”  Imagine my delight when I discovered you can also estrenar things other than movies and shows: “You’re looking good today, Renee.”  “Oh, thanks!  I’m premiering my new dress!”  So much fun.–

Without further ado, here’s the list of words I could come up with in the moment, in the order I thought of them.  I’m sure there’s more, but it would take a specific situation for them to occur to me.

Conocer:  This is the number one word I miss in English.  We all learn in Spanish 1 that there’s two words for “to know”: “saber” means to know facts or information, and “conocer” means to be familiar with a person or a place.  I’ve found as I discuss my future travel plans that “visit” is often too weak a word to describe that I want to go to a country.  “Conocer” implies some degree of becoming a part of  or getting to know a place, without specifying if it’s for a week’s vacation or to live for a lifetime.

Querer:  This word had the double meaning “to want” or “to love.”  If you say “I want you” in English, it generally has a sexual connotation, whereas in Spanish it’s somewhere between “I care a lot about you” and “I love you deeply.”  Don’t you think it’s weird that we have to express the three distinct feelings we have for pizza, a best friend, and a spouse with the same word?  (See also: me encanta:  “I love *insert something non-human here*”)

Tener ganas:  I didn’t notice this one until a friend mentioned it, but I’m realizing what a convenient expression it is.  It could probably be translated as “I feel like” or “I want to,” but not with the same flair.  It literally is “I have ganas to do something/go somewhere/etc.”  Whatever the heck “ganas” are, we all have them in some form or another.

Mejorar/empeorar:  These can be translated pretty easily to “to make better/worse,” but it’s just a lot more convenient this way, don’t you think?  Why don’t we have this concept in one word?

Rezar:  “Orar” and “rezar” can both be translated as “to pray,” but from what I’ve gathered, “rezar” is more often used in the context of praying pre-written prayers such as the rosary and “orar” is the more organic sense of using your own words.  Although they both mean communicating with God, they are different ways.  As a Catholic, I find the distinction to be important.

Ahora/ahorita:  The lie they tell us in Spanish class is that this means “now/right now.”  The concept could be better understood as “the vague stretch of time before and after this exact moment.”  It depends on the context whether this is seconds, hours, weeks.  I got really confused when my Spanish tutor told me, “Renee, let’s go over this grammar ahora.  Read this (completely unrelated) paragraph out loud.”  Well which one do you want me to do, woman?!  Turns out she was just assuring me that we would get to the grammar before the end of class.  Ticos have a much looser sense of time.

Qué dicha:  This is a Tico expression that means “what luck” or “how good” or sometimes a mild form of “congratulations.”  I just can’t find a good translation, but it’s so useful, I wish I could.

Tranquilo/a:  You can use this as an adjective, which does indeed have an equivalent in English, but there’s another way to use it that means “calm down.”  It quite annoyed an American friend of mine last semester, because no one really likes to be told to calm down, but it doesn’t have the “you’re acting crazy” connotation in Spanish.  It’s more like “don’t worry about it” or “it’s all good, just roll with it.”  Kind of goes along with the pura vida concept.

Nacer:  “To be born.”  It’s a pretty active action, so why don’t we have an active verb for it?

Patria:  Our word is “home country” or maybe “homeland,” but it doesn’t have the same connotations of, I don’t know, parenthood.  There’s a line from a rather popular Calle 13 song called “Latinoamérica” that says “Él que no quiere a su patria no quiere a su madre (He who doesn’t love his country doesn’t love his mother).”  The word comes from the Latin root for “father.”  I like it because we’re raised by our country just as much as we’re raised by our parents.

Estadounidense:  Speaking of patria, we’ve been saying our nationality wrong all along.  “American” is a very general term that could technically apply to anyone from North or South America.  So yes, I may be American, but that’s not very specific.  How about “United-Statesian”?  Got any better ideas?


There’s plenty more, but these are the ones that stick out to me at the moment.  Feel free to comment if you know any words from Spanish (or any other language for that matter) that don’t translate well to English!  This is one of my favorite parts of language-learning.


4 thoughts on “Irreplaceable Spanish Words

  1. This is a really brilliant idea for a blog post. I noticed the same thing when I moved back to the US after living in Japan… there’s just so many things that are difficult to express in English!

    1. I limited the post to words, but I feel like there’s a loss in the grammar, too. I don’t know much (anything) about Japanese, but in Spanish the subjunctive tense adds a lot of subtleties to the language.

    1. Thank you! I don’t have a whole lot of experience with other countries’ Spanish. I haven’t noticed the phrase much in Mexican Spanish, but it may have been a bit premature to deduce that that means it’s only used in Costa Rican Spanish.

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