Italians are a superstitious lot. Many carry lucky charms or touch iron to ward off bad luck (touching wood in Italy will get you nowhere by the way!) Whilst others faithfully follow their horoscopes or call on the saints to help. So you’d think that wishing someone good luck, literally Buona Fortuna, would be a good thing, wouldn’t you? But if you value your health, don’t ever mutter those two little words to an Italian as its considered extremely bad luck! Confused? Well, don’t worry, here’s how to wish someone Good Luck in Italian and ensure that Lady Luck looks kindly on you and your friends forever!
How to say Good Luck in Italian
If you want to wish someone good luck in their exams, starting a new job or before a first date, the phrase you actually want is In bocca al lupo, pronounced een boh-kah al loo-poh. It literally means “In the wolf’s mouth” or “Into the wolf’s mouth” but is intended to mean anything from good luck, fingers crossed, break a leg or even face your fears!
But that’s not all because the person you’re wishing good luck to must immediately reply Crepi il lupo! or simply Crepi! meaning “Death to the wolf!” It’s pronounced kre-pee al loo-poh and is an essential part of the good luck ritual. If they forget or just say “Grazie” they risk bad luck so make sure it’s not forgotten!
But what’s a wolf got to do with good luck? And why are we being so mean wishing it such a terrible ending? Well, bare with me and all will be explained.
The origins of In bocca al lupo
To the non-Italian saying “Into the wolf’s mouth” or “Death to the wolf” may sound a bit strange. But the wolf icon pops up throughout history and there are lots of different stories explaining where this little good luck phrase came from.
Some suggest that it goes back to the opera theatre, a bit like when actors say “Break a leg” before going on stage. Others relate it back to ancient Roman history. But I’ll let you make your mind up which one sounds most plausible, as I’ve not yet found a definitive answer!
Ancient Roman origins
One of the main ideas dates back to the story of the abandoned twins, Romulus and Remus, who went on to found Rome. The twins were famously suckled by a gentle she-wolf before being rescued from a cave in the hills that would later for part of their Eternal City. And its suggested that saying In bocca al lupo goes back to the she-wolf who will protect you, as she did the twins. It doesn’t quite explain why the wolf is wished dead though?
Another suggestion is that opera singers started using the phrase before going on stage; a bit like actors saying “Break a leg” to avoid putting a hex on a performance by saying “Good Luck”. In this idea, the wolf is a metaphor for the audience to be faced, with the proscenium arch of the stage equaling the wolf’s mouth. So singers say In bocca al lupo to wish each other a good performance hoping to avoid being savaged by the wolf or rather, the audience.
Out in the countryside many suggest that the expression comes from the rural hunting world where wolves were a risk to livestock and therefore hunted. In bocca al lupo was a way for hunters or farmers to wish each other good luck in the face of a dangerous predator as they went out to cull it.
Say In bocca al lupo to ward off the plague
In Medieval times the wolf took on an extra level of evilness, even being associated with the devil. That’s because as well as being a predator of domestic animals, wolves were spotted eating the corpses of plague victims from mass graves. And thus their evil rating rose to stratospheric heights. Saying In bocca al lupo is therefore suggested to be a way of warding off both the devil and the disease.
Ward off the evil eye
Other stories also link into the wolf-devil association, suggesting that 18th and 19th century travellers would use the phrase to generate courage before a long journey and against the danger of wolf attack. I’ve only found this story in one place so far, so I can’t say how well-held the belief is but it all blends into the wolf equals bad news idea so who knows…?
Little Red Riding Hood
Continuing the theme, some suggest that there is actually a very simple origin; the children’s fable Little Red Riding Hood. The European fairy tale about a young girl and big bad wolf has several versions, some more gory than others. But whether it’s the Charles Perrault or Brother Grimm adaptation, the gist of the message is that the village is safe but the woods are dangerous and that we should always obey our mother! Wishing someone In bocca al lupo, therefore is a way of saying Good luck, watch out for danger and be good all in one! Tidy!
Face your fears
Or maybe it’s just a way of forcing us all to face our fears and do it anyway, a bit like actors’ “break a leg”. A challenging situation like an exam is compared to being caught in the fangs of a wolf ready to swallow you up, but you have to face it to become stronger. So whilst you might face struggles in life, if you have the protection of In bocca al lupo and keep pushing forward you will eventually come out the other side as a winner, much as Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandma did.
Mean one thing, say the other!
Or the origin could be nothing more complex than the popular old belief that if you want to say one thing, you have to actually say the opposite so as not to jinx something. So if you wish that someone should plunge into the mouth of a devilish wolf, what you’re actually doing is wishing them the best fortune! Certainly this holds true in for stage people in show business so could easily spread to those of us not in the spotlight!
Other good luck charms in Italy
The wolf isn’t the only thing that Italians use when summoning up good luck.
Florentines will touch the snout of a bronze boar statue in the old marketplace whilst dropping a coin into the fountain. In Milan its apparently tradition to spin on your heel over the “crown jewels” of a mosaic bull in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade. Whilst Romans prefer to throw 3 coins into the Trevi Fountain.
Verona’s superstitious rub the breast of a bronze statue of Juliet, of Romeo and Juliet fame, hoping for luck in love. The Torinese (from Turin), have a similar tradition to Milan of standing on a bull or touching the finger of a statue of Colombo for a safe trip and prosperous life! And Venetians won’t walk between 2 columns in the Piazzetta di San Marco because executions were carried out there. That one makes perfect sense to me!
And finally so many Italians are superstitious about the number 17 that national airline All’Italia doesn’t have a row 17 on any of its planes!
In bocca al lupo tutti!
So whether you’re knocking on iron, stamping on bulls’ bits or touching up Juliet, there is no need to be afraid of this big bad wolf. In bocca al lupo is a wonderfully idiomatic Italian saying and wherever it came from, it is the only way to say Good Luck in Italian unless you want to poke Lady Luck in the eye! I’d love to hear your thoughts on where the phrase came from or whether you use any lucky charms so leave me a comment with your stories. And don’t forget to subscribe via email or join us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram so you don’t miss out on everything Italian from DreamDiscoverItalia. In the meantime, I’d just like to say In bocca al lupo tutti, Good Luck everyone!!