I often see the collision of English and Italian sayings. I am referring to things we might use in everyday conversation that might mean something to us but not to someone from another country.
The Collision of English and Italian Sayings
Sayings and idioms
This is an area that really interests Barnet Boy. So much so, he wrote a book about ‘weird, wonderful and wacky’ English place names. For example ‘Pratts Bottom’ (no comments please). For some time we have been keeping a list of old sayings with a view to writing a book on the subject. Sayings such as ‘it is as broad as it is long’, ie. it makes no difference.
In English we have a lot of old sayings, or idioms, that we use as part of our language. I know from chatting on line with my American friends that sometimes I use them without thinking in a discussion and my friends have to go away and look them up. And vice-versa of course. But, my Italian friends have a whole host of their own sayings to add to the melting pot. Sometimes my Italian friends will say something that sounds very cryptic that I later realize it is an old saying with a hidden meaning.
An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a figurative meaning rather than a literal one. For example, ‘let’s paint the town red’ means to go out for a good time, not literally paint the town a red color.
Wolves and Spending Pennies
When I first moved to Italy my neighbor said to me ‘in bocca al lupo‘. I had no idea what he was talking about (it means ‘in the mouth of the wolf’). Then someone explained it was an expression meaning ‘good luck’. Similar to when we might say ‘break a leg’. The correct response to ‘in bocca al lupo’ is ‘crepi il lupo!’ (the wolf might die). Apparently it originates from hunters wishing each other luck and then the phrase came into common use.
I met a friend at a bar last week and the bar owner introduced us to a variance on this saying for good luck. It is a bit cruder! ‘In culo alla balena‘ means ‘into the bum of a whale’. There are lots of ways of responding to this apparently. Her favourite is ‘speriamo che non caghi‘ (let’s hope it doesn’t shit!). Eeek! I am not even going to speculate where this saying originated from (but if you find out do tell me).
Then you get the collision of English and Italian sayings. Several times I have made the mistake of beginning to translate an English saying into Italian and then realized I was on to a loser and abandoned the attempt. However, I remember a friend studiously translating the need ‘to spend a penny’ (ie. needing to go to the bathroom) to a group of Italians and being met with blank stares. Why he didn’t just ask for the bathroom escapes me.
A Skinflint – or not?
In Italy to say someone has ‘short arms’ is to suggest they are stingy (ie. they don’t spend money easily). Making the same point, in English some people say someone is like ‘a man with no arms’ (they have no arms so they can’t reach their wallet). But just to confuse things I have seen the phrase ‘he is like a man with no arms’ used to mean the person is spending wildly. At least we are on the same page here with the general meaning of the sayings. That is not always the case.
Nothing Confusing About Fireflies Right?
Who doesn’t like fireflies (lightning bugs) or glow worms? Wonderful little beacons of light that hover over the countryside in summer. Here in Italy they are called ‘lucciole’ (loocheeolay – no extra charge for helping you with the pronunciation). My poem ‘The Souls of Cats‘ talks about cats chasing fireflies, a regular event at my house in firefly season.
There is a wonderful Italian saying ‘prendere lucciole per lanterne’ which literally translates into mistaking fireflies for lanterns. Or as we would say in English making a mistake or ‘getting hold of the wrong end of the stick’.
But, as I found to my cost when I was talking to Italian friends about giving my house a name, ‘lucciole‘ doesn’t just mean a fireflies. It can also mean prostitutes! So I was actually thinking of calling my house ‘the house of prostitutes’ oops. It took my friends a long time to stop laughing.
Then they suggested, because of my love of cats, I should call the house ‘The Cat House’. Their turn to be embarrassed as I explained that I couldn’t use that as as a name as it can be used to describe a brothel!
When is rude not actually rude?
Don’t get me started on rude sounding Italian phrases that are not quite how they seem. For example, someone might tell you that ‘your face looks like your bottom’ (‘faccia di culo‘). Far from being an insult (which I can assure you it would be seen as in Brighton where I was born), in Italy it is a compliment meaning you are very direct, and/or have no constraints or embarrassment.
Confused? Yeah, me too…
The images in my blog today are available to purchase as fine art prints in a variety of formats and sizes.
If you like language, idioms and sayings you might enjoy my blog post where I group 255 English sayings and idioms into subject groupings. Some might surprise you!
Before you go
My name is Dorothy Berry-Lound an artist and writer. You can find out more about my art and writing at https://dorothyberryloundart.com.
Thank you for reading!