This classic idiom was suggested to me by my mother-in-law, who uses it more in everyday speech than most Italians!
put a flea in (someone's) ear
plant an idea in someone's mind
In Italian culture, the act of stuffing fleas into someone's ears has nothing to do with bugs; This is a metaphor for introducing new ideas, doubts or suspicions into their minds. Once ingrained, the thoughts can become persistent and difficult to ignore, like the presence of an irritating insect on your skin. More often than not, the person won't rest until that lingering doubt is addressed and eliminated.
Some possible translations include:
- to plant an idea/suspiciousness/suspiciousness in someone's mind
- Sow seeds of doubt in someone's mind
- Sow seeds of doubt
- make someone think about something
For example, if your friend inadvertently notices that two of your coworkers seem closer than usual, you may begin to suspect that there is more to their relationship than meets the eye. In this case, you would say that your friend planted the seeds of doubt in your mind, or as the Italians say, He put a flea in your ear.
Didn't you see the way they looked at each other? – Come on, now you’ve put a flea in my ear!
Didn't you see the way they stared at each other? – Oh, come on, now I can’t stop thinking about it… you’re making me wonder!
It is worth noting that, although not explicitly covered in most dictionaries, this expression in Italian does not always have a negative connotation. It can also convey an idea that “piques someone's curiosity about something,” such as a new product or interesting topic. So, in some cases, saying someone “put a flea in your ear” might just mean that they intrigued you in a positive and interesting way.
I'm going to see Scorsese's new movie tonight. You put a bug in my ear and now I have to see it!
I'm going to see Scorsese's new movie tonight. You piqued my curiosity and now I have to check it out!
It is not to be confused with the British idiom “to put a flea in someone's Ear” which means “to rebuke someone”.
However, it is very similar to the American idiom “putting a bug in someone's ear” which means “giving someone a suggestion or hint, or delivering some message to help them decide on a course of action.”
A slight variation of this idiom replaces A (A) and this (this) – Put fleas in your ears. Both versions are considered correct.
Heather Broster is a graduate with honors in linguistics from the University of Western Ontario. She is an aspiring polyglot, fluent in English and Italian, as well as varying degrees of fluency in Japanese, Welsh and French. Originally from Toronto, Heather has lived in several countries, notably Italy for six years. Her main research areas are language acquisition, education and bilingual teaching.