“Do you know that they’re closing down the prison at San Quentin and turning it into a luxury resort?” I asked my neighbor after reading an article about the startling transformation in a local newspaper in Marin County. “Guess they got you!” she replied. The seeming news story was a hoax played to turn a gullible reader like myself into an “April fool” or, in Italy, un pesce d’aprile (April fish).
According to legend, a raven on Noah’s ark set off on this day to search for a sign that the flood waters had receded but never returned. Others trace the madcap holiday back to the year 1564, when Pope Gregory introduced a new calendar that changed the beginning of the new year from April 1 to January 1. Some people who didn’t believe or wouldn’t accept the change kept celebrating New Year’s Day on the first of April. Others tried to show how silly they were by sending them on fools’ errands or tricking them into thinking something false was true.
Somehow the fool came to take the form of a fish in Italy. Children try to tape a paper cutout of a little fish (pesciolino) to the back of a schoolmate. “Have you seen it?” they chant. “Who?” the unwitting child asks. “Il pesce d'aprile!”
In a country of pescatori (fishermen), and marinai (sailors ), il pesce swims through daily life—and language. In Italian you’re sano come un pesce (healthy as a fish) rather than an ox. A big shot is un pesce grosso (big fish). But be wary: I pesci grossi mangiano i piccini. (The big fish eat the small fry.)
You don’t need a pole and bait to go fishing in Italian. Buttarsi a pesce (literally throw yourself like a fish) means to dive into an activity headfirst or with enthusiasm. Non sapere che pesci pigliare (not know which fish to pick) refers to being at a loss and not knowing which way to turn. Rather than the early bird catching the worm, in Italian chi dorme non piglia pesci (the one who sleeps doesn’t catch the fish.) But in Italy as everywhere “L’ospite è come il pesce; dopo tre giorni puzza.” (Guests are like fish; after three days they stink.)
Words and Expressions
*Trattare a pesci in faccia — to mistreat, to humiliate, to mortify
*Un pesce fuor d'acqua — a fish out of water
*Un pesce lesso — a boiled fish (boring person)
*Prendere un granchio — to take a crab (make a blunder, overshoot the mark)
*Pescivendolo –- fishmonger
*Pescheria -– fish shop, fishmonger’s
*Non essere né carne né pesce –- neither fish nor fowl
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.