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In bocca al lupo.....

wolf.jpg

In my Italian language class, we were recently discussing proverbs, or expressions that don't always make sense when translated literally, but instead have a larger meaning. For example, a foreign student learning English might be mystified if someone in a conversation before an exam said, "Break a leg!" To someone unfamiliar with the language and its idioms, that would sound pretty offensive. Why, the student might wonder, would I want to break a leg? That makes no sense!

So learning proverbs in a new language can be useful to understanding what's really going on. One of my favourites in Italian (and the first I ever heard) is the proverb: "In bocca al lupo." This, of course, literally translates as "into the mouth of a wolf." And you use it to wish someone good luck. Similar to, "break a leg!" (By the way, the photo above is by Bill Thayer, and was taken in Gubbio, where St. Francis of Assisi tamed Brother Wolf.)

I don't know the origins of the expression "In bocca al lupo" -- obviously, if you're in or near a wolf's mouth, you are going to need luck! Therefore, wouldn't a better expression be something like, "May you avoid the mouth of the wolf!" But, my thoughts on this don't really matter. It is what it is.

The correct response to the wish "In bocca al lupo" is "Crepi!" This means, "may it die!" Poor wolf.

According to Wikipedia, there are variations on "In bocca al lupo." One is, "In culo alla balena!" which translates as "into the ass of a whale!" Wikipedia helpfully adds that the response to the whale comment is "speriamo che non caghi!" or "hope it doesn't defecate." This does seem rather vulgar.

Here are a few other Italian language proverbs that I've found which I thought were fun.

"A chi dai il dito si prende anche il braccio." This translates as, give them a finger and they'll take an arm. Also known as, give them an inch and they'll take a mile.

"Chi la fa l'aspetti." This literally translates as he who wrongs someone has to expect something in retaliation. Or, what goes around, comes around.

This one worries me:
"Chi mangia solo crepa solo." Or, he who eats alone dies alone.

Finally:

"Il bicchiere della staffa." This literally translates as the (wine)glass of the stirrup, aka one for the road!


Comments (16)

These ARE fun. The wolf one is rather mysterious!

Barb Cabot:

Grazie!

I always find idioms and proverbs so interesting. They are hard to learn in another language. In bocca al lupo is probably the only one I know well, although I did not know the response. Fun examples.

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Sandra, Into the mouth of a wolf, sounds so much more interesting than our saying of break a leg.

I love the Italian language. I think I need to brush up again. Thank you for this interesting post Sandra. Hope you had a nice day.

Anne:

In culo alla balena...great gasping snorts of laughter!!! Holy Jonah, Batman - what a colourful expression, although I agree the response is rather over the top!

sandrac:

Thanks, Annie and Barb -- I'm glad you enjoyed the expressions!

Girasoli, they are always interesting! Especially ones that seem to make no sense (like in the mouth of the wolf!)


Kathy, sometimes I really despair that I'll ever learn enough Italian to even hold a basic conversation.

Anne, it's hard to imagine dropping that one into casual conversation!

Great post, Sandra. I had heard of only two of these expressions. "Chi mangia solo crepa solo" has always summed up for me the whole Italian culture of good food requires good company at table.

One of the possible explanations is this one: "Il modo di dire in bocca al lupo viene dal gergo dei cacciatori ed equivale a "buona caccia!". Trovarsi in bocca al lupo,ossia vicino al lupo, per un cacciatore significava trovarsi nella condizione ottimale per ucciderlo, perciò l'espressione era da intendersi in forma di augurio. E l'uso vuole che a questo augurio non si risponda mai "grazie", bensì "crepi!", riferendosi ovviamente al lupo."

Roughly translated to mean "good hunt!" since being close to the wolf's mouth meant great conditions. So the hunters would wish each other "in the wolf's mouth" and then answer "may the wolf die!"

sandrac:

I think you're right, Deborah, that expression tells us a lot about Italian culture.

Chiocciola, that's an interesting explanation! It makes sense to imagine this expression being derived from hunting.....and I guess one would have to get close (before guns were used) to take down a wolf! Thanks for this!

Very interesting Sandra. Thanks for sharing.

Hi Sandra, for years I wrote Italian proverbs in my paintings. "Che crepi il lupo" would be the full risponse.
I love you blog, want to catch up.
angie

I knew this expression from the opera, where it's the equivalent of what American actors say: "Break a leg!" meaning "have a great show!" -- it's bad luck to say "good luck."

The "mouth of the wolf" is what the singers see from the stage -- a big red maw of audience, ready to eat them alive. (Many Italian opera houses are upholstered in red.)

sandrac:

Hello Barbara, how very interesting! I like the idea of the audience, in their red padded seats, looking like the gaping maw of a wolf!

ollie:

From studying Latin and obviously a bunch of Roman histories and legends, I can only assume that "in the mouth of the wolf" must derive from the myth regarding the founding fathers of Rome.
According to Plutarch and Livy: the twin brothers Romulus and Remus (sons of the God Mars) were abandoned as new borns. But, luckily for them the she-wolf that found them decided to suckle them.
Yada-yada-yada, they build a city, Romulus kills Remus, names the city Rome, becomes King, is deified, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Except the Etruscans, the Carthaginians, the Celts etc.,

Anyway... suckled by a wolf. Phew that's lucky.

Seems as good an explanation as any.

sandrac:

Hi ollie, that is a very reasonable explanation for why such an expression would suggest good luck -- certainly, the She-wolf brought good luck (and life!) to Remus and Romulus.

Patricia:

I'm not sure if anyone else has mentioned this, but I believe the origin of the comment comes from the opera world. From what I've been told and remember, somewhere near the beginnings of opera in Italy, there was a theater that had a proscenium (the frame for the stage) that was decorated to look like the open mouth of a wolf. So, when you went onstage to perform, you were literally going "into the mouth of the wolf." The standard response by opera singers is "crepi il lupo" which translates to "kill the wolf" although sometimes people take it as "bite." It is an alternative for good luck for opera singers. The other one is "toi, toi, toi," which is an onomatopoeia for spitting over someone's shoulder for good luck. I actually had someone really spit over my shoulder once wishing me good luck for a show. We opera singers are weird!

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