Fishing in the Italian Language

Aug 1, 2016




At least once a week I visit the fresh fish stores in Bodega Bay on the north California coast, to buy crab (granchio), salmon (salmone), mussels (cozze), shrimp (gamberi) or clams (vongole). But I'd never encountered some of the fish names we spotted at a local pescheria in Lipari in the Aeolian Islands:

        *Aragosta — Mediterranean lobster

        *Polpo — octopus

        *Totano — tattler (cuttlefish)

        *Spatola — scabbard fish (also, Harlequin's wooden sword in Italian street theater)

        *Occhiata — saddled bream (literally, glance or look)

        *Orata   – gilt head sea bream

        *Rana pescatrice — anglerfish (literally, fisherwoman's frog)

        *Pesce spada — swordfish 

        *Mustina — greater fork beard (this remains a mystery to me) 

Some days we didn't have to dock at a port and head for the nearest pescivendolo (fishmonger) to check out his pescata (catch). Once we happened upon a  pescatore (fisherman) fishing for aragoste (lobsters) from his peschereccio (fishing boat).  Antonino, who did double-duty as captain and chef, cooked up a just-caught specimen for a delicious dinner.

While on board, we learned the names for a fishing line (lenza), net (rete), rod (canna da pesca), bait (esca) and tackle (equipaggiamento per la pesca). But you don’t need a pole and bait to go fishing in Italian. Il pesce swims through daily life—and language.

An Italian is 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.)

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 catch) 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 (he who sleeps doesn’t catch the fish).  But in Italy, as everywhere, “L’ospite è come il pesce; dopo tre giorni puzza.” (A guest is like a fish; after three days it stinks.)

Words and Expressions

*Trattare a pesci in faccia — to mistreat, to humiliate, to mortify

*Pesce fuor d'acqua — fish out of water

*Pesce lesso — a boiled fish (boring person)

*Prendere un granchio — to take a crab (make a blunder, overshoot the mark)

*Muto come un pesce — silent as a fish

Dianne Hales is the author of Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered and the New York Times best-selling La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

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