The Lure of Leather in the Italian Language

Jul 22, 2010


la pelletteria 

the leather shop 

Shoes to die for: high heels (tacchi alti), loafers (mocassini), boots (stivali), sandals (sandali). Gloves (guanti) that caress the fingers. Wallets (portafogli) as soft as butter. Briefcases (ventiquattrore) that gleam. And purses (borse) in every imaginable size, color and shape, stunning to behold, sensuous to touch, elegant to tote.

These are some of the delights you may discover in una pelletteria, an Italian leather store. Not all carry a full range of leather goods. Some specialize in gloves or shoes, for instance; others sell only purses. My favorite pelletterie are in Florence, where artisans have a long tradition of tanning hides (conciare pelli) and crafting leather into works of beauty. 

Since Italian leather can be as supple as skin, it’s only fitting that Italian uses the same word—la pelle—for both. But in the language “pelle” takes on a life of its own. A pellaccia is a rogue or a rascal. Amici per la pelle (friends for the skin) are best friends or bosom buddies. 

If you laugh so hard you could split your skin, you’re in danger of ridere a crepapelle. If you’re bursting with happiness, you might declare, “Non sto nella pelle dalla gioia” (a way of saying you’re over the moon with joy). Of course, you never want to vendere la pelle dell’orso prima che sia morto (sell the bear’s skin before it’s dead — the equivalent of counting one’s chickens before they are hatched). 

Just as in English, sometimes you have to develop a pelle dura (hard or thick skin) and do whatever you must to salvare la pelle (save one’s skin). Levar la pelle (excoriate or peel skin) means to scold severely. Far la pelle a uno (make the skin to someone) is a slang expression for doing someone in or killing him. In dangerous situations, people may have to rischiare la pelle (risk one’s skin or life ) or even rimetterci la pelle (lose their skin or die in the process).That thought alone may be enough to make your skin creep (far venire la pelle d’oca). 

If you want to perfect your Italian pronunciation, try this classic tonguetwister: 

Apelle figlio d'Apollo fece una palla di pelle di pollo; tutti i pesci vennero a galla per vedere la palla di pelle di pollo, fatta da Apelle, figlio d’Apollo. (Apelle son of Apollo made a ball of chicken skin; all the fish came to the surface to see the ball of chicken skin, made by Apelle son of Apollo.) 

Words and Expressions 

la pelle d’oca -– goose flesh 

vendere cara la pelle – to sell one’s skin dear, to put up a brave front 

essere pelle e ossa — to be skin and bones 

spellarsi — to peel off, to flake off (after a burn, for instance) 

vivere qualcosa sulla propria pelle – to live something right on your skin, to have a direct experience of something, usually negative 

 A personal recommendation: FP Pelleterie in Florence sells elegant hand-made purses that, as the owner assures me every time I visit and invariably buy, you can never find anywhere else—and she’s right. 

Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language

 For a musical tribute to la pelle, click below: 

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