There are thirty-eight big cat species in the world but none is quite as iconic as the lion – or leone (masculine, plural: leoni) in Italian.
A female lion, or lioness, is called a leonessa, whereas a lion cub can be translated as leoncino (little lion), although you will also hear cucciolo di leone.
African lions (leoni africani), which are extremely sociable in nature, are the only cats that live and hunt (cacciare) together in groups called prides (branchi). There may be up to fifteen individuals in one pride – usually one dominant male, a number of females and the cubs of the alpha male.
I leoni cacciano in branco.
Lions hunt in groups.
Because lions are associated with courage, the word leone can also be used in a figurative sense to describe someone with this particular trait. This is also the meaning of the expression un cuor di leone (a heart of a lion).
Il nostro Gianni è un vero leone. È pronto ad affrontare qualsiasi cosa per raggiungere il suo obiettivo.
Our Gianni is a real lion. He is ready to face anything to reach his goal.
The constellation Leo (the Latin name for lion) is also called Leone in Italian. It lies between Cancer to the west and Virgo to the east.
Another kind of lion which isn’t a cat at all is the sea lion, or leone marino. It gets its name from the mane (criniera) of long hair around its face.
In Italy, Leone is also a first name for boys.
Idioms that contain ‘leone’
A pelle di leone
Literal translation: like a lion’s skin (a rug in a hunter’s home)
English meaning: flat on one’s belly
Meglio un giorno da leone che cento da pecora
Literal translation: better a day as a lion than one hundred as a sheep
English meaning: better to be a leader than a follower
Essere un leone in gabbia
Literal translation: to be a caged lion
English meaning: to show great impatience when faced with a limitation, particularly by walking nervously back and forth in a confined space
Fare la parte del leone
Literal translation: to play the part of the lion
English meaning: to obtain more than your fair share via questionable means
Essere nella fossa dei leoni
Literal translation: to be in the lions’ den
English meaning: to be in big trouble, in hot water
La sera leoni, la mattina coglioni*
Literal translation: lions in the evening, idiots in the morning
English meaning: to act crazy in the evening under the influence of substances, only to wake up the next morning hungover and exhausted
*Warning: coglioni, which means balls (as in testicles), is not a nice word in Italian. It is not uncommon to hear it between friends or amongst teenagers, but avoid saying it to someone you don’t know well. It can also be used to insult a person (singular coglione) or a group of person.