Speaking Italian, Italywise

Photo by NatureGuy, Adobe Stock Images

You’re probably asking (if you’re not offended) “What do wolves, whales, and poop have in common?” They all share a common function of wishing someone well here in Italy, while avoiding saying “good luck”.

I am fascinated by idiomatic expressions, and they are plentiful here in Italy. As you begin learning them, you might be overwhelmed. I’d recommend concentrating on matters that come up more frequently, so you can fit in. So, don’t be surprised when an Italian instructs you, “Don’t wish me luck!” Other colorful ways are at your disposal for wishing someone well. Let’s start with probably the most common…

“In bocca al lupo” means “In the mouth of the wolf.”

This phrase, is similar to the English “Break a leg,” and has origins in opera and theater. Over time, its use has expanded to encompass wishing someone well in other endeavors, such as taking an exam. I heard this several times before I took my Italian driver’s license exam. How do you respond when someone says this to you? “Crepi il lupo” which means “May the wolf die” is the proper response. Often it is shortened to “Crepi!” A prevailing theory insinuates that you hope the wolf dies, choking while he has you in his mouth.

An alternative theory of the origin of “In bocca al lupo” is that it isn’t phrase that is meant to have menacing overtones, but instead refers to how a mother wolf might protectively hold a cub in her mouth. I prefer that interpretation, and I’d rather not wish that a wolf dies. But, I don’t need to split hairs. I just want to go with tradition, and follow the formula.

If you want to equip yourself with one phrase for wishing someone well here in Italy, this would be the one, in my opinion. Other options exist, but they’re pretty colorful, and you might not feel comfortable using them. They also include references to “poop” (my attempt to be a bit more polite).

“In culo alla balena” means “Into the ass of a whale.”

Whoa, what was that? Yes, someone is wishing you well by suggesting you’d best be protected in the butt of a whale.

What is the proper response? “Speriamo che non caghi” or “Let’s hope he doesn’t shit.” (Sorry for the language, but it is what it is). Regardless, I’d hate to be stuffed into a whales ass, and then pooped out. I have no earthly idea how this expression originated. I guess I’ll have to do a bit more research.

And this leads me to the usage of poop in other ways of warding off bad happenings, and serving as portents of good things ahead…

“Merda, merda, merda!” means “Shit, shit, shit!”

Again, my apologies for the rough language. I can’t find another “tamer” interpretation. This primarily is used by performers in the theater (dancers, actors, opera singers, etc.) before making their entrance. They exclaim it for themselves vs. someone else saying it to them.

Getting nailed with bird poop means good things ahead.

In Italy, bird poop is a portent of good fortune. So, if you’re like Frances in the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” and a pigeon flies over launching a nice crap bomb on you, then you’re a lucky person. Some people suggest that getting pooped on by a bird is an extremely random chance event – kind of like winning the lottery. In other words, you’ve been singled out. Okay. I’ll try to remember that if it happens to me, again. You see, when I was crapped on by a bird at a friend’s high school graduation many years ago, I almost threw up, and the clean-up was a mess – and a lottery win wasn’t waiting for me around the corner.

But, I AM in Italy, and perhaps bird shit has magical qualities.

That’s the short lesson in the common ways of wishing someone well here in Italy. Practice these expressions, and you’ll be sure to elicit a smile or a nod of thanks, along with the formulaic replies mentioned above.

A final note about the “darker” side of speaking Italian…

If you want to be proficient speaking Italian, I recommend you concentrate your efforts on proper speaking, with emphasis on being polite and respectful. However, when you spend any significant time in Italy, you might be a bit shocked at the amount of swearing and slang that is used. Simone tells me Italians swear WAY more than Americans. I don’t take that as encouragement to join in, because that is like playing with a metaphorical loaded weapon. Still, you might want to educate yourself on some of the commonly used expressions that you normally won’t find in a Speaking Italian 101 book. My good buddy Jess gave me the following book. It’s highly entertaining, and you might find a few expressions you can use (but under the tutelage of an Italian). At the very least, you might understand when you’re being insulted, or the target of a sexual advances. Enjoy!

Hide this Italian Book – read more here at Amazon.com.