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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

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

Why say "good luck" when you can use this phrase instead?

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

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.

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

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.
 

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

Italian word of the day: ‘Inciucio’

Here's a word you'll need to deal with ahead of Italy's elections.

Italian word of the day: 'Inciucio'

With two days to go until Sunday’s general election, there’s talk of a potential ’inciucio’ everywhere from the pages of newspapers to the heated conversations at sports bars up and down the country.

So what is an ‘inciucio’ and why does the word seem to be on everyone’s lips whenever Italy faces elections?

Briefly, ‘inciucio’ is political jargon that describes any type of dubious agreement or, if you will, compromise reached by two or more political parties generally holding opposite views and ideals.

There’s no direct translation into English, though a native speaker would probably refer to it as something of a dodgy backroom deal.

Non c’è una maggioranza chiara. 

Eh, figurati. Faranno il solito inciucio.

There isn’t a clear-cut majority.

Oh, that’s not new. They’ll go for the usual deal.

Such an agreement is usually necessary when forming a large coalition government, with terms largely assumed to be based on the “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” principle. 

READ ALSO: Salvini vs Meloni: Can Italy’s far-right rivals put differences aside?

With that definition in mind, it’s hard not to see why ‘inciucio’ is such a commonly-used word in Italy, a country whose political class has historically been partial to improbable alliances with their previously hated rivals. 

Cosa pensi delle prossime elezioni?

Preferisco non pensare. Ne ho avuto abbastanza di questi inciuci. 

What do you think of the next elections?

I’d rather not think. I’ve had enough of these political deals.

Purtroppo, con questa legge elettorale, l’inciucio tra partiti è l’unica via per avere un governo…

Fammi un piacere. Gli inciuci esistevano anche 60 anni fa, molto prima di questa legge elettorale.

Sadly, with the current electoral system, a compromise between different parties is the only way to form a new government.

Do me a favour. These types of agreements existed 60 years ago, well before the present electoral system.

While the noble art of the inciucio goes back a long way in the history of republican Italy, the term itself was only coined in 1995 by Massimo D’Alema, then secretary of the left-wing Democratic Party (PD). 

The expression only rose to popularity a couple of years later, when the founder of the term thought it fit to put the word to good use and reached a ‘non-aggression pact’ with the then-leaders of Italy’s right-wing coalition – the agreement went down in history as the patto della crostata or ‘pie pact’ – but we’ll keep that story for another time.

Ever since then, the term ‘inciucio’ has been regularly used by political commentators as well as the wider public to discuss the various power plays of the country’s major political forces.

For instance, the most classic of inciuci was at the foundation of Giuseppe Conte’s first cabinet back in 2018, when Matteo Salvini’s League and Luigi Di Maio’s Five-Star Movement unexpectedly found sufficient common ground to form a coalition government.

So, will we see another inciucio this time around?

Given the unpredictable nature of Italian politics, you’ll forgive us for not ruling out the possibility of another inciucio just yet.

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