To Eat the Leaf

Monstera green leaves.

Today’s idiom is a popular Italian idiom whose literal translation gives little indication of its real meaning. 

Mangiare la foglia (Italian)

To eat the leaf (English)

The phrase mangiare la foglia (“To eat the leaf”) is used to refer to someone who is particularly good at understanding the deeper meaning of something which has been said. An English equivalent is to read between the lines. In Italy, people who eat the leaf are critical thinkers; people who hesitate to take persuasive words at face value. Rather, they will do the research on their own and make sure they are not being taken advantage of or tricked into something.

The origins of this idiom are disputed. The most popular theory states that it comes from the Odyssey, specifically the chapter where Ulysses is trapped on the island of the sorceress Circe. There, he realizes that Circe is trying to use magic to turn him into an animal and, upon discovering her plan, he eats a leaf given to him by the god Hermes, which makes him immune to Circe’s enchantments.

Another theory says the saying has its origin in shepherding. Traditionally, shepherds would take a bite off one leaf of the pasture before letting his herd graze on it, therefore making sure it was good to eat. Some people disagree, and say that in this instance, the saying refers to silkworms, who are also said to try a small portion of the leaves they eat before they go all in on their meal.