A Fistful of Italian Flies
Every year my husband Bob and I wage war against creatures that once terrorized the Maremma, the western part of Tuscany: 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 were 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.
The threat of malaria is gone but the bugs remain, as ravenous as ever. To know these blood-thirsty enemies (nemici sanguinari) better, I learned 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
We’ve tried swatting at our winged attackers, but all too often we end up, as Italians say after any fruitless endeavor, con un pugno di mosche ( with a handful of flies, or empty-handed). And so we 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 us 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 us – fa saltar la mosca al naso (literally makes the fly jump at the nose) — more than bug bites (punture d’ insetto).
However, there’s no way to keep un pezzo grosso (a big bug) from flitting into a conversation — not even with a cry of “Zitto e mosca?” (a colloquial way of saying “Keep quiet!”). When things get so still that you could hear a pin drop, Italians say, “Non si sentiva volare una mosca” (you could hear a fly flying). They describe something trualy unusual as una mosca bianca (a white fly).
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
un pidocchio rifatto — parvenu, someone newly rich who shows off his wealth without any elegance.
Dianne Hales is author of LA BELLA LINGUA: MY LOVE AFFAIR WITH ITALIAN, THE WORLD’S MOST ENCHANTING LANGUAGE.
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