Help! My Cat Needs a Hill and My Dog’s Chasing a Hormone.


An Italian Porcupine

Sooner or later your love of pets will lead to your having to speak Italian. You might want to buy food, explain something to the vet or just wax lyrical about how marvellous your cat or dog is to your Italian neighbour.  When you’re learning a new language mistakes are inevitable and don’t think that becoming more fluent eliminates the howlers.

 I speak passably good Italian, in fact, I’ve worked as a translator and even sold advertising in Italian on the phone for God’s sake. But last week while in the pet shop I noticed the face of the friendly assistant rearranging itself into an all-too- familiar expression – extreme politeness just failing to mask the urge to laugh.

“OK, what did I say?” I asked. I fess up instantly these days.

“No, no” she assured me, smirking. “Niente.”

I mentally ran back through my lengthy monologue on my beloved crow Merlina. I knew all the vocabulary. And then the penny dropped. Hooded crow is a relatively new word for me and it is, in case you ever need to know, cornacchia (kor-NACK-ee-ah). Sadly, that is not what I had just said. Oh no. I had said cantuccio. A lot. And cantuccio has nothing to do with crows or even birds. It is a hard dessert biscuit. I had explained how I had rescued a biscuit, how my biscuit now lived in an aviary I had built myself in the garden and how I was here looking for a toy for my biscuit as I was worried it was bored.  


When we first moved to Umbria my mistakes were frequent and nearly always involved animals. Having tried to buy a packet of lambs (agnelli) instead of curtain rings (anelli)  in the local hardware store I was off to a good start.

Another day, I told the man in the farm accessories shop that I needed a hill for my cat. He seemed quite shocked by this simple request and told me they didn’t have any. Why on earth I thought that collina (hill) was the word for collar (collare) I have absolutely no idea, but to his credit he did his laughing in the stockroom when he though I had gone.

My neighbour was just recovering from having to mime a rabbit for me, after she’d asked me to rescue her coniglie and I had no idea what she was on about. So she was quite wary as she approached me curiously one morning. What was I looking at?

I was fairly sure I knew the word for falcon and so I confidently told her I had been watching a ‘fata’ and would she like to see it through my binoculars. “Are you sure?” she said looking at me incredulously. “Oh yes,” I replied. “I’ve seen quite a few.” She declined and made a quick exit. Alan informed me that falcon was not fata but falco and I had told her I’d seen a fairy.


I like using mnemonics to remember words and so when I learned that another word for porcupines (porcospini) was istrici I remembered it by thinking that it sounded very similar to the hormone oestrogen. And then of course I needed to retrieve the word when telling an Italian friend an animal anecdote.

I began the sentence alright (you will find this happens a lot – start something and then not know how to finish) but then needed the magic word. Just in time I remembered it. Phew!

“My dog,” I said dramatically in Italian, “chased a hormone this morning!”





  1. Thank you!

  2. Valli (expats in Italy board) says:

    This had me chuckling !!! :-)

  3. Thanks Neil. It’s funny how we view animals we eat, isn’t it? I’m not a vegetarian but I can’t eat horse, donkey, rabbit or those little songbirds.

  4. Funny.
    My wife and I were recently eating in Rome when she ordered a side dish of chicory. Coniglio arrived instead. Of course I was the one that had to eat it (and I was happy to do so).

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