I saw a post in a local English language newspaper, The Tico Times, recently about slang terms in Costa Rica. The word “vara” caught my eye. Oh, I thought, this should be good.
Vara (in English “Rod”)
This word that is used as a means of measure, in Costa Rica also means lie or liar. Its origin dates back to the time when the metric system was not yet established, so the fabrics were sold by yards equivalent to 0.91 cm, and wood was sold by rods equivalent 0.84 cm.
And as some merchants sought to take advantage of the difference between both measures, those clients who noticed the deception said: “Stop cutting the rod” from where the expression was reduced to saying the only rod [vara].
Ha! I thought, how appropriate. I was one of those who cried, liar. Repeatedly.
If you buy wood in Costa Rica, nine times out of ten your woodcutter will cut in varas, that ancient and mysteriously created Spanish measurement. But it’s also more than likely he will sell the wood to you in pie, feet.
I have attempted to research the origin of the vara and have been stymied in my efforts. The closest I’ve gotten is through Wiki World and a few obscure blogs related to woodworking. It seems the prevailing thought is that the vara originated in Spain’s northern central province of Burgos, then a power center in the early 16th century. It was calculated with many other integers (toes? Fingers? palms?) and finally became the accepted norm for a yard. It’s complicated. The trouble is a vara is not a full yard. The actual conversion is somewhere around 32.91 inches. A yard is 36 inches.
Three inches + a fraction is not a lot, you might say, but imagine a house built with thousands of board feet of lumber. I did endless calculations—the calculator became my constant companion. I obsessed over how much money we lost with each delivery, and I argued endlessly with our lumber broker, who, by the way, made us just that. But I knew my stuff, and he hated me for it:
1 vara = 33-1/3 inches = 2.777778 feet
To convert varas to feet multiply by 0.36
To convert feet to varas divide by 0.36
Then add the whole board feet calculation to that mix. Yah, my brain was on fire
In the end, it was hopeless and, bottom line, I lost. I did have a cutoff number of what I was willing to pay, though, and at the end of our ordeal, I came in .10 cents under my board foot cost allowance. After one knock-down-drag-out with the guy, my son, who was visiting at the time, remarked, “Wow, Mom, that was worse than a drug deal going down.” But less lucrative for me as well as the wood cutter, I assume.
Because the Spanish brought the vara to all of Latin America and eventually California, it was used in surveying measurements in Southern California. And San Francisco. The first mayor of that city hired a city planner Jasper O’Farrell. O’Farrell, for reasons no one understands, created 50-vara blocks and 100-vara blocks north and south of Market Street.
My father loved to tell a story from his youth about working for a renowned surveyor in the 1920s; the last remaining guardian, according to Dad, of the measure and San Francisco’s ancient plot maps. When the city updated with new planning, they used this surveyor (and my dad) to re-plot some of the downtown city streets. Dad was the rod holder and often had to enter buildings as much as ten-twelve feet for the surveyor to get a proper reading of where the point used to be during O’Farrell’s time and his vara period of topography. Dad said he never knew how the city changed the maps and who benefited or lost out, but it employed him for an entire summer.
The vara still lives in Costa Rica and many other Latin American countries, but I love the fact that it’s used to call out those using it: Liar!