Visitors to Costa Rica often wonder why the Costa Ricans are called “Ticos.” The name “Tico” comes from a charming peculiarity of Costa Rican speech–the frequent use of the diminutive. “Tico” is a word ending that suggests “littleness.”

Several suffixes indicate smallness when attached to the end of a Spanish word. These suffixes include “-ita,” “-ito.” For example, a dog (”perro”) that it small might be called a “perrito.” Or a girl (”niña) who is small might be called a “niñita.”

But Costa Ricans often take this notion of smallness one step further, doubling the suffix. When this doubling happens, a “t” often appears before the final suffix, rendering it “-tico,” the famous nickname for a Costa Rican. Interestingly, this phenomenon happens with the word “chico,” one of whose meanings is “small.” In the diminutive, the word is “chiquito.” To indicate something really small, someone might use the word “chiquitico,” with the “-tico” suffix.

“Poco” is the word for “a bit,” so “a little bit of water” would be “un poco de agua.” A Costa Rican would typically use “poco” in a diminutive form–”poquito”–”a little bit.” But most Costa Ricans would further miniaturize the concept to “poquitito” or “poquitico.” Thus, a Costa Rican who wants a drink would commonly ask for “un poquitico de agua,” using the “-tico” ending.

Costa Ricans all generally have very cheerful dispositions, and their use of the diminutive illustrates this national tendency to be cheerful and pleasant. Something small is generally considered something inoffensive or even attractive, and the smaller the better.

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