Literally translating as “in the wolf's mouth”, this famous Italian phrase is much more interesting to say than “good luck”.
And in some parts of Italy, simply saying buona fortuna (good luck) is sometimes considered to bring the opposite.
Though it may sound a bit dramatic, people in Italy really do use this idiomatic phrase in everyday conversation.
Much like the English “break a leg”, the phrase is used a lot in the theatre. But also when wishing good fortune to someone about to take on a daunting or challenging task – such as sitting an Italian language exam, or visiting the local prefettura.
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The real confusion though arises over what exactly you're supposed to say in response.
If someone says this phrase to you, the correct response is widely said to be crepi il lupo (may the wolf die), or simply crepi. Many people consider a simpe grazie or thank you as likely to reverse any good fortune.
However, in reality, the response may vary.
Wolf-related phases rarely have positive connotations in any language (see also: “keep the wolf from the door” in English) and Italian is no exception. The phrase andare nella bocca del lupo, or 'to go into the wolf's mouth' means metaphorically 'to get into trouble'.
But a lot of people do tend to respond with a grazie anyway – as not everyone in Italy considers being “in the mouth of the wolf” such a bad thing.
Wolves protect their young by carrying them in their mouths, meaning some believe the idea of ending up in a wolf's mouth has positive connotations. And after all, the legend of Romulus and Remus tells us the founders of the ancient city of Rome were saved as babies by a she-wolf.
This might explain another, more unusual response: evviva il lupo (long live the wolf)!
In general though, for non-native Italian speakers the easiest response to in bocca al lupo is still crepi – otherwise you're likely to have a well-meaning Italian try to educate you.
And if you want to avoid all this talk of wolves altogether, there's another, somewhat less refined way of wishing someone good luck:
In culo alla balena, which literally means “in the whale's ass”.
And that one really does defy explanation.
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