Italian expression of the day: ‘In bocca al lupo’

Why wish someone 'good luck' when you can use this Italian phrase instead?

Italian expression of the day: 'In bocca al lupo'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Literally translating into English as ‘in the wolf’s mouth’, this famous Italian phrase is much more interesting to say than a simple ‘good luck’.

And in some parts of Italy, saying buona fortuna (‘good luck’) is sometimes believed to bring the opposite.

That’s why, though it may sound a bit dramatic, this idiomatic phrase really is used in everyday conversation in Italy.

Much like the English ‘break a leg’, the phrase is heard a lot in the theatre. But it’s also used 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.

READ ALSO: Popes, chickens and reheated soup: 15 everyday Italian idioms you need to know

Confusion arises however over what exactly you’re supposed to say in response.

If someone says this phrase to you, the correct response is widely believed 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 depending on where you are and who you’re talking to.
Wolf-related phases rarely have positive connotations in any language (see also ‘keeping 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 some people tend to respond with a grazie anyway – as not everyone in Italy considers being ‘in the mouth of the wolf’ such a bad thing.
Some even believe the idea of ending up in a wolf’s mouth has positive connotations, since wolves protect their young by carrying them in their mouths. 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, even more unusual response: evviva il lupo (long live the wolf)!
In general though, the easiest response to in bocca al lupo is always crepi. This is especially true for non-native Italian speakers, since if you say anything else you’re likely to have a well-meaning Italian presume ignorance and attempt to educate you.
If you really 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.
Do you have a favourite Italian word, phrase or expression you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.

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Italian word of the day: ‘Tirocinio’

Let us offer you some (unpaid) experience with this Italian word.

Italian word of the day: 'Tirocinio'

If you’re entering the world of work in Italy, there’s a good chance that at some point you’ll be offered a tirocinio (pronunciation available here). Should you accept?

That all depends on whether you think you’ll get enough benefit (and money – in the unlikely event there is any) out of an internship, which is what this slightly odd-sounding word means.

According to the Accademia della Crusca, Italy’s oldest linguistic academy and the guardians of the Italian language, it comes from the Latin word tirocinium, which has two components.

The first part of the word comes from tirone, the name for a recruit to the Roman military (tirare means – among others things – ‘to shoot’ in Italian).

The second, cinium, comes from canere, meaning ‘to sound’ (a horn) or ‘to play’ (music); a tubicinium was a horn or trumpet player.

Joined together, the two words meant something like ‘a rousing of the recruits’, in the sense of an initiation or learning experience. An intern is a tirocinante.

Tirocinio isn’t the only Italian word for internship: you’ll also hear people talk about a stage (pronounced the French way, like this, as it’s borrowed from French); an intern is a stagista.

That’s the title given to Alessandro, one of the main characters in the Italian comedy series Boris, who starts an internship on the set of the medical soap opera Eyes of the Heart 2 and is soon initiated into the bizarre and dysfunctional world of Roman TV production.

Ho dovuto lavorare presso la mia azienda per sei mesi come stagista prima che mi offrissero un lavoro.
I had to work at my company for six months as an intern before they offered me a job.

Domani inizierò il mio tirocinio – auguratemi buona fortuna!
I start my internship tomorrow – wish me luck!

If you do end up working as a tirocinante or stagista, hopefully it will be less surreal and better remunerated than that of Boris’s protagonist.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.