“In bocca al lupo” – Italian Idiomatic Phrase

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Italian-American
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: Berkeley, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: April 14, 2021
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Italian

Description of Informant

AG (18) is an Italian-American dual citizen and high school student from Berkeley, CA. At home, she speaks primarily Italian, and spends her summers in Italy.

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Phrase

Original Text: In bocca al lupo.

Phonetic: N/A

Transliteration: Into the mouth of the wolf.

Free Translation: [See Collector’s Reflection]

Responses: (1) Che crepi. (2) Crepi il lupo! (3) Crepi.

Context of Use

The idiomatic phrase is the Italian equivalent of “break a leg.” However, unlike its English counterpart, in bocca al lupo solicits a response, which may be delivered in several different ways. The phrase is used in place of “good luck” when one is entering a situation they have prepared for (e.g. performance, interview, examination, etc.)— rather than luck, you are wishing someone skill.

Context of Interview

The informant, AG, sits in the kitchen with her father and the collector, BK, her step-brother. Text spoken in Italian is italicized, but not translated.

Interview

BK: So tell me about the saying.

AG: Umm so basically when someone has an event, or a test they need to take. Instead of saying “good luck,” which is buena fortuna, in Italy you would say “in bocca al lupo.” Which is, literally translated, “in the mouth of the wolf.” And I don’t know if it has something to do with, like, Little Red Riding Hood or wherever they got it from. But then, the person taking the test, or who got good luck’ed, they respond “che crepi.” Which means like, uhh, how would you translate che crepi? Like, “I hope he dies” or “that he dies”…

BK: Who is “he”?

AG: The wolf. Yeah, that the wolf dies. It’s not super translatable.

BK: What is the appropriate context for this phrase?

AG: I think anytime someone in English would say “break a leg.” Like if I have a dance performance, my mom wouldn’t say “good luck” because it’s not luck for me, I don’t need luck to succeed, I need, you know, to do well, myself. And so she would say “in bocca al lupo” instead.

Collector’s Reflection

Into the mouth of the wolf represents plunging into danger. Often, though, this does not mean physical or life-threatening danger. In the expression’s day-to-day use, danger means the risk of failing a social performance (e.g. interview, recital, examination). The response of crepi indicates the receiver’s acceptance of the wish of strong performance, and their own hopes of success. Killing the wolf is overcoming the obstacle/challenge successfully.

The strong distinction between a wish of luck versus a wish of skill is fascinating. Luck, for Italians, is reserved for moments where circumstances are out of one’s hands (e.g. acts of God). Skill is up to the individual and their preparation. In English, you will often hear the skill-based equivalent, “break a leg,” spoken in the same breath as “good luck.” Though English speakers may understand the difference between luck and skill, their idioms conflate the concepts, while Italian speakers are very strict in their separation.