Italian Proverb

“In bocca al lupo”

/Een bo ca al loop oh/

“In the mouth of the wolf”

“Both my parents were born and raised in Italy. It was from them that I had learned this proverb, which I heard ever so often, from almost every Italian friend. I always used to say it to my friends, whether they knew what it meant or not, it became such a habit for me to say rather than the American “good luck”. If I’m not mistaken, I first heard it from my father when he dropped me at school on a day when I had a test I was very nervous about.

I do speak Italian, I was raised speaking it, and so I asked my dad why such a cruel thing is said to me. So… he explained to me that this proverb is, in fact, a common Italian way to say, “wishing you success” and I heard this same explanation from many other Italians. See the thing is, the wolf in this proverb represents the enemy, and getting into the mouth of it stands for-danger. So, when one uses this words, one acknowledges that the person who is being encouraged is heading for a dangerous challenge.

I got used to this peculiar encouragement that sounded quite the opposite, as I was raised hearing it. Yet, a long time later, I learned from my Italian friend Flaminia, that there is a response to this greeting that should be said by the one who is being greeted, and by replying it makes much more sense as a proverb that is used as an encouragement. The traditional response is: “Crepi il lupo”- “That the wolf may die”, which means rising to the challenge and beating the enemy. However, this second part, the response, is rarely used, leaving the “In bocca al lupo” as an encouragement by itself“

Giulia had enlightened me about this saying by shedding some light on how it is appropriately used. I also had learned about the saying from my parents, and had never quite understood what it meant. I had not heard that there exists a response until this interview. My analysis of the saying had always been that the saying is negative, just as the American saying, “break a leg” is negative, in order not to ‘jinx’ the person who is about to perform whatever task. In that way, by wishing something bad upon them, for whatever twisted reason they will do better than if you wished them good luck. Maybe even a reason that has to do with the “evil eye”.

Looking at the response it makes much more sense to be using this sentence. It shows that the saying involves bravery and dealing with the worst.

My analysis of the saying beforehand also involved my own experience in Italy. When I was 12 I moved with my family to Rome, Italy. There I stayed two years. During that time I learned much about the Italian cultures, and one story that stuck with me was the story of the naming of Rome. The short version goes that one of the sons of the Roman king who had wanted the throne sent the king’s twin boys to their death. They were put in a basket and left in the Tiber River. However, the twins were miraculously saved by a she-wolf that had taken care of them. When I thought of the saying I had related it back to this story, and imagined that “In Bocca al Lupo” was somewhat to say may the wolf come and miraculously help you in whatever it is you need good luck. This way, the saying had a positive connotation, which made more sense to me.

Now, looking at the response, it makes much more sense to be using this sentence. It shows that the saying involves bravery, dealing with the worst, and truly overcoming a challenge, what a great way to wish luck to someone.

As mentioned above other versions of this could be seen in the American “break a leg” that involves something bad occurring rather than good. Yet I have yet to encounter a saying of good fortune that needs a response in order to achieve its full effect in any place other than Italy.