Summer in the Italian Language: The Battle of the Bugs

Jun 23, 2018




For centuries the Maremma, the western part of Tuscany, was notorious for gli insetti (insects). Its infamous marshes, which weren’t drained until the 20th century, were a breeding ground for mosquitoes that infected thousands of people — travelers as well as residents — with malaria. Among those fatally stricken was Eleonora di Toledo, wife of the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I de’Medici. She died of malaria along with two of their sons after a hunting trip in 1562. While the threat of malaria is gone,  the bugs remain as ravenous as ever.

If you're vacationing in Italy this summer, you're likely to encounter some winged marauders. To know these blood-thirsty enemies (nemici sanguinari) better, start by learning their names:

    *mosquito — zanzara

    *fly –- mosca

    *gnat — moscerino

    *wasp — vespa

    *bumble bee — calabrone

    *ant — formica

    *ladybug — coccinella

    *beetle — scarabeo , coleottero

    *cockroach — scarafaggio, blatta

    *tick — zecca

    *louse — pidocchio

You can try swatting (schiacciare, dare un colpo secco), but you're likely to end up, as Italians say after any fruitless endeavor, con un pugno di mosche ( with a handful of flies, or empty-handed). I turn to two modern products that could have changed Maremma’s history: Baygon, an industrial-strength bug killer (insetticida) so potent that it sizzles when it hits the pavement, and Autan, an insect repellant (repellente per insetti) that I coat myself with from head to toe as soon as I dry off from the shower.

If I could, I’d retreat behind a zanzariera (mosquito net or curtain) day and night. Some might accuse me of fare d’una mosca un elefante (making an elephant out of a fly — or a mountain out of a molehill) or prendere un fucile per acchiappare una mosca (taking a rifle to shoot a fly). But nothing quite literally bugs me — fa saltar la mosca al naso (literally makes the fly jump at the nose) —more than bug bites (punture d’insetto).

Even in colder months there’s no way to keep un grosso insetto (a big bug) from flitting into a conversation — not even with a cry of “Zitto e mosca” (a colloquial way of saying “Keep quiet!”). In Italian, as in English, si prendono più mosche con una goccia di miele che con un barile d’aceto (you can catch more flies with a drop of honey than with a barrel of vinegar). But if someone says, “Non fare il pidocchioso!” they’re not calling you a louse, just urging you not to be stingy.

Words and Expressions

Stuzzicare / suscitare un vespaio — stir up a wasp’s nest 

Formichiere — ant-eater

Formicaio — ant hill

Vespaio — wasps’ nest

Pidocchio rifattoparvenu, someone newly rich who shows off his wealth without any elegance.

Una mosca bianca — a white fly (something truly unusual)

Ogni scarrafone è bello a mamma sua — Even a cockroach (ugly child) is beautiful to his mother (as the song below testifies)

Dianne Hales is author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. 

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