When translating "shark" into Italian, there are two translations: "squalo", "pescecane". I would like to understand the difference between them.

Both words are used (seemingly interchangeably) in this Wikipedia article:


Having done some research online, here is my hypothesis: "squalo" is the formal term from biology, and "pescecane" is the colloquial term.

Am I right? What is the difference between these two terms?

Thank you.

  • 3
    They are synonims. Pescecane is more colloquial, but neither of them is a scientific term as far as I understand. Could you expound on the motivation for this question? Is there a particular sentence you want to translate and you are wondering which is more appropriate? Words in isolation mean nothing.
    – Denis Nardin
    Nov 15, 2016 at 14:43

4 Answers 4


Italian synonyms for shark

Word Usage
pescecane This is the newer word, entering the lexicon around the 17th century, literally meaning "dogfish". In the past 50 years it has decreased in popularity:
enter image description here
and is now mostly used by the older generation and in certain regional dialects of Italian (e.g. Calabrian).

This is also the term used for shark meat in culinary dishes (like the difference between cow, pig and beef, pork).
squalo The older word, inherited from the Latin squālus. It is nowadays the more common word used to refer to sharks of any species in standard Italian.

In most other Romance languages, the cognate of squālus is indeed the scientific term for sharks (e.g. French squale, Catalan esqual, Spanish escualo, Asturian escualu, Romanian scal, Ligurian squæo) but in (standard) Italian it is the general term.
carcarodonte Italianised form of the scientific name for the Great White Shark, Carcharodon carcharias (itself from the Greek word for shark, καρχαρίας (karcharías)) and as such carcarodonte is also used in scientific circles to refer to this specific type of shark. It is about as common as carcharodon is in English.

Animal synonyms in European languages generally

Having two words for shark isn't unique to Italian. Historically the word used for shark in many European languages referred specifically to the small species commonly encountered in/native to their waters e.g. dogfish.

When the European colonial powers invaded the Americas they encountered the now more familiar much larger species of shark. Due to this, new words were adopted to describe these larger species, and eventually, through metonymy, the old words were mostly supplanted by the newer ones, having taken on a more general meaning e.g.

Language Historic word(s) Contemporary word
English dogfish, haye shark
Galician quenlla tiburón
Postuguese cação tuburão
Spanish cazón tiburón
Catalan caçó, peix can, ca marí, gos de mar tauró
Occitan peis-can, verdon làmia, requin
Italian pescecane squalo

enter image description here



"Carcarodonte" is probably the formal biology term for the white shark, even though i never heard this word. You usually use "squalo", and your grampa would use "pescecane", which was a way common word in the past (eg: "il pescecane" in Pinocchio).

Oddly, the chinese dish "shark fin soup" is almost always translated as "zuppa di pinne di pescecane".


Pescecane is indeed more colloquial than squalo and it is still used quite often in the area around Trieste and the former Italian teritories where I grew up (Istra in Croatia). Older generations (my grand parents) used exclusively pescecane. Squalo being the standard Italian is used the one used exclusively in e.g. TV programs. That influence is probably the pricipal reason for the decreasing popularity of pescecane among young people in the last few decades.


"Pescecane" is indeed a colloquial term but it is not an exact synonym of "squalo", in fact the term "pescecane" is applied only to the shark species that are perceived as "typical sharks" in terms of both shape and predatory behaviour.

For example, in Italian you would not use "pescecane" to refer to a whale shark ("squalo balena") or a sawshark ("squalo sega" or "pesce sega") or a hammerhead shark ("squalo martello" or "pesce martello") and I doubt it would be used for a basking shark ("squalo elefante") but you can use it for most of the species who actively hunt and usually swim in mid-water, like a white shark (squalo bianco) or a thresher (squalo volpe) or a bull shark ("squalo leuca" or "squalo zambesi").

In other words, all "pescicani" are "squali" but not all "squali" are "pescicani" and the definition of "pescecane" is not rooted in biology or genetic but it merely depends on the stereotypical image of sharks we have in our mind.

As a final note, in biology sometimes we use "squali" (but never "pescicani") to refer to the wider group the cartilaginous fishes including also rays ("razze")

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