It’s a Dog’s Life in the Italian Language

Apr 16, 2012

Puppy in pot

Che vita da cani!

It’s a dog’s life!

“Non c’era un cane,” a friend said, describing a village so deserted that there wasn’t a dog (a soul). Usually you find every sort of dog in Italy: cane da caccia (hunting dog), cane da guardia (watchdog), cane da guida (guide dog for the blind), cane da salotto (lap dog), cane lupo (German shepherd), cane da pastore (sheep dog), cane poliziotto (police dog), cane da slitta (sled dog), even a cane antidroga (anti-drug or sniffer dog) at the airports. In every town you see signs that warn “Attenti al cane!” (Beware of the dog). In a canile (dog or animal shelter), you can find many an adorable (cucciolo di cane (puppy), like the pasta-loving one above.

Dogs show up in other forms in Italian. A cruel, heartless, worthless person simply is un cane—and may treats a friend or loved one come un cane (like a dog). A solitary soul seems solo come un cane (alone or lonely as a dog). A bad singer howls come un cane (like a dog). If you’re in terrible pain, you’d say “Mi fa un male cane” (loosely, I feel like a bad dog). Two people who don’t get along are come cane e gatto (like dog and cat—at each other’s throats). A freezing day fa un freddo cane (is dog cold), while any bad weather seems tempo da cani (weather for dogs).

“Non svegliare il can che dorme.” (Don’t wake up a sleeping dog, Italians advise — in other words, let sleeping dogs lie. English speakers may live in a dog-eat-dog world, but Italians realize that “cane non mangia cane” (dog doesn’t eat dog—or powerful people never hurt each other). They also know that some impossible missions are as futile as trying to drizzar le gambe ai cani (straighten dogs’ legs). Keep trying, and you might end up feeling fortunato o benvenuto come un cane in chiesa (as lucky or as welcome as a dog in church). If so, no one would blame you for saying, “Porco cane!” (slang for “Holy mackerel!” or “Bloody hell!”)

When I first started studying Italian many years ago, I learned only the polite “Lei” form of address.  I honestly figured  that as a tourist I might not need  “il tu,”  the informal you.  Then  I went jogging on a country road in Tuscany.

An agitated man ran up to me and explained that his dog was trapped in a steep ravine. He could push  him from behind, but would I call the dog to come to me? He, of course, addressed me in the respectful “Lei” form.  And I, knowing no other, did the same with the dog. 

The man nearly fell over laughing at the sound of my oh-so-polite imprecations, which translated as, “Mister Dog, would you please be so kind as to come to me?” The dog  just barked even louder — a good thing, I figured, since can che abbaia non morde (barking dogs don’t bite). 

Words and Expressions

 guinzaglio — leash

cane barbone –- poodle, spaniel

cane di Terranova –- Newfoundland dog

cane randagio –- stray dog

menare il can per l’aia – lead the dog around the yard or beat around the bush

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. 

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