Our lives are full of situations that demand that we grit our teeth and keep going. Big things, little things, challenges we’ve never encountered before or those we’ve encountered many times, new things we want to try, things we have no choice but to do… the list goes on. When you think about it, we’re always being told to “hang in there” or “stay strong”. The phrase gabatte is especially common in Japanese. We use it to close a letter and show a person that we are supporting them and looking after them, or to leave them with our expectations for a positive outcome. We even say it ourselves (“I’ve got this!”) as a kind of inspiration and motivation to push forward—almost like a magic word that gives us the energy to keep going.
Maybe the kanji characters used to write the word ganbaru have a kind of power to them, or the word itself has a particular resonance, but to me, they feel like a kind of battle cry that fires up the will to persevere. The Italians have their own phrase for it and said it to me when I first moved here, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it missed the target somehow.
Their idiom is “in bocca al lupo”.
It means, “into the wolf’s mouth”. I mean, does the idea of jumping into the mouth of a wolf make you want to steel your resolve or just cower in fear and run away?
Maybe it’s like the idea of a warrior preparing to go into battle and die? In bocca al lupo didn’t make much sense to me when people said it as a way of encouragement back then, and when I’d stammer out a confused “thank you”, still trying to figure out what they were trying to say, they would tell me it’s not something you say “thank you,” to in response, laying an explanation on me that didn’t make any sense either.
The proper response is “crepi”.
Apparently it means something coarse like “drop dead”. For someone that grew up in Japan, why you would reply to someone’s encouragement by insulting them was beyond me. Then I learned that the full phrase is actually “crepi il lupo”, and it’s just shortened to “crepi”. In other words, it means “may the wolf drop dead”, and they just leave out the wolf part. It was just my lack of understanding of my non-native language that made me think you were saying it to the person talking to you.
Incidentally, now that I’ve now been responding with “drop dead” for twenty years, an Italian told me that that’s actually not the right response either.
Apparently there’s actually an even deeper history behind the phrase in bocca al lupo.
There is a wolf in the myth about the founding of the Roman Empire, as most of you probably know. The story goes that a she-wolf raised the abandoned Romulus and Remus. It is the instinct of mother wolves to carry their babies to safety in their mouths, which then creates positive memories around the mother wolf’s mouth. But then they would have to look into why you would respond “drop dead” to something auspicious like a wolf’s mouth. So apparently, this person explained, the correct response is “viva”, or “long live the wolf”. And there are other slightly different legends about it as well.
So now what am I going to do? Respond with “crepi”, or with “viva”…?