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Luck, wolves, and spells

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Most languages have some sort of expression to say “good luck”. Thinking about its actual meaning for a moment, what these expressions are all about is wishing success to someone who may be about to do something in which there may be actual danger or simply the possibility of failure or embarrassment. So we say good luck before an exam, an interview, a big project, moving house, etc. You don’t typically say good luck if someone is taking a trip down to the supermarket, unless, for instance, the roads are blocked or the item they really want to buy could well be out of stock.

The direct translation of the English phrase “good luck” into Italian would be “buona fortuna”. However, this phrase is rarely if ever used, and can in fact be interpreted as wishing bad luck on the recepient! In Italian, the standard way of wishing someone good luck is to use the cryptic expression “In boca al lupo.” The person to whom you say this would then reply with the equally cryptic “Crepi il lupo.”

Now, the literal translation of these phrases are “in the mouth of the wolf,” and “may the wolf break/crack/die” How are these related to luck? It is likely that the expressions arose in hunting and farming communities, which would have been genuinely been terrorised by marauding wolves who would have killed both humans and their livestock. The wolf gradually became identified (much as the snake has in Christian mythology) as the personification of evil in much of European folklore. Think about the classic children’s stories of Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, or the Wolf In Sheeps’ Clothing (the latter two from Aesop’s Fables). Clearly, the wolf has been long ingrained in our imagination as something bad, dangerous, evil.

With this in mind, being “in the mouth of the wolf”, means placing oneself in the hands of possible evil or misfortune. The response of “may the wolf break” means wishing that the misfortune will pass or fail to do lasting damage.

However, this brings up another question. Why would you wish someone to be “in the mouth of the wolf” in order to give them good luck? Surely the expression should be something like “stia lontano dalla boca del lupo” (stay away from the mouth of the wolf) or “non avvicinarsi alla boca del lupo” (don’t go near the mouth of the wolf)?

I’d assumed that the answer was that the phrase had just become shortened over time. However, the reality is more intriguing. The expression “in boca al lupo” partly arose from the widespread belief in magical charms or spells that could help the receiver avoid misfortune. These spells could consist of a set of words to be spoken aloud or a behaviour such as a gesture (crossing fingers) or even a habit to be maintained on a daily basis. In other words, superstitious behaviour to avoid bad luck, or to actively gain good luck. In Italian, this is referred to using the wonderful word ‘scaramanzia’.

For instance, you could say that you always arrive early to an exam “per scaramazia” or that you’re not revealing details about the person you have started dating, again, “per scaramanzia”. In other words, for good luck. Having said this, I should note that I have never heard scaramanzia being used verbally, so it may well be only used in written form.

Saying something that is the opposite of what you actually want to happen is one type of scaramanzia. So to wish someone good luck, you do the opposite and wish them to end up in the mouth of the wolf. The worry is that if you do wish them good luck (“buona fortuna”) then the opposite will happen. In English, we actually do have the similar expression “Break a leg”, which has a meaning along the same lines.

On that note, may the wolf be with you. 🙂

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2 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Great post! My italian professor use to always wish us “In boca al lupo before starting an exam, we could not officially start until we all replied “Crepe!”

    Reply

    • Thanks, Susan. It’s fun to imagine an entire class of students shouting “Crepe!”.

      Reply

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