They buzz, bite, sting — and shatter the serenity of a summer day in Italy. Many of the insects (gli insetti) you might encounter in Italy are familiar foes. The fly (mosca), mosquito (zanzara), gnat (moscerino), wasp (vespa), bumble bee (calabrone) and tick (zecca ) are blood-thirsty predators. Others, such as the ant (formica) and beetle (scarafaggio), may be more interested in what’s on your table.
A louse sounds as undesirable (pidocchio) in Italian as in English — but even worse is a pidocchio rifatto (someone newly rich who shows off his wealth without any elegance). At least the sweet little ladybug has a name that captures its charm: coccinella (which my dictionary also translates as “ladybird”).
What do you do when winged invaders attack? 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). Two modern products can tackle this ancient scourge: 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 (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. Another caution: Non stuzzicare un vespaio (Don’t stir up a wasp’s nest). And remember: Ogni scarrafone è bello a mamma sua — Even a cockroach (or ugly child) is beautiful to its mother.
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language; LA PASSIONE: How Italy Seduced the World; and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.