Feature Articles

August 2009
Mafia: What's In A Word?

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     The term mafia has had over the course of centuries different meanings under a variety of perspectives. At present, the Italian penal code has overtaken the meaning of mafia, pushing aside older definitions, in that it defines mafia as a criminal phenomenon of a unique type in comparison to other illegal activity.

     Under current Italian law, an association of the mafia type is when "those who engage avail themselves of the force of intimidation, bounded under oath, and of the condition of submission and of omertà, permitting the commission of crimes in order to acquire in a direct or indirect mode the operation and thus control of economic activities, concessions, authorizations, contracts and public services, or to realize profits and unjust advantages for themselves or for others, or attempt to impede or hinder the free exercise of the vote or to procure votes to themselves or others on occasions of electoral consultations." Mafia is a group of organizations of which the most important but not only is Cosa Nostra.

     Going back in time, the word mafia has been used in different contexts, and not only in Sicily. In the Florentine dialect it means poverty or miseria (famine). The Piedmont word mafiun is related; it refers to uomo piccino (small man), signifying mean, narrow-minded, shabby, wretched. The significance of the word historically in Sicily, however, is different. The term appeared for the first time in a 1658 document, "Catarina la licatisa nomata ancor Maffia," as the nickname of a witch (that is, Maffia), in the sense of audacity, a thirst for power, arrogance. The double "f" was dropped in the 1860s.

     In the 1800s, the word was discovered by scholars in the Palermo dialect. Probably an imported term, it indicated a Sicilian plant and/or a western Sicilian term that referred to criminal activity in general: camorra, highway robbery, brigandage. Mafiusu, as a descriptive adjective, was present in Sicilian by the early 1800s, at least among inhabitants of the fishing village of Il Borgo, outside of the Palermo walls and incorporated into the city in 1880.

     In the Borgo, mafiusu meant something positive, out of the ordinary: beauty, gracefulness, perfection, excellence. An attractive girl was a ragazza mafiusu. An object that was elegant or impressive, such as a building, would earn the appellation palazzo mafiusu. In reference to a man, the adjective indicated a show of exaggerated masculinity, a superiority, virility; a man with utter confidence, who understood the essence of manhood. From mafiusu, the Italian equivalent translates into the noun/adjective mafioso.

     The origin of the Palermo term is uncertain. Some say it is an Arabic derivative, from mahias that means impudent, brazen, shameless, or its origin is from the Saracen race that dominated Palermo from 800 A.D. to after 1000: Ma afir. A third argument points to the Arabic maha, stone quarry, especially the volcanic tufa stone quarry near the western port city of Trapani called mafie. It was there that the Arab refugees who were expelled from Palermo when the city was overrun by the Normans took refuge (as well as others, later). There is no end to such theories. Another comes from the period of General Garibaldi's invasion of Sicily, in 1860, to oust the Bourbon occupiers. Sicilian rebels who were hiding in the mafie got the name of mafiosi, that is, the people of the mafie. And it was through that process that the word took on meanings like superiority, haughtiness, etc., in the language of the people. The hypothesis of an Arabic origin appears most probable.

     After 1860, mafiusu would take on a more sinister tone. The change can be attributed to a very successful play, which got national coverage, entitled I mafiusi della Vicaria ("The Mafiosi of the Palermo Prison"). The play was about the customs, habits and speech patterns of the prison inmates. The inmate members of the camorra (camorra/camorristi were the Neapolitan terms used at that time in Sicily to refer to organized crime) held sway over the other inmates. They imposed their own will, and norms of comportment, language and social rank on the entire prison population. It was those individuals who for the first time were called mafiosi. (The term officially entered Sicilian dictionaries in the 1870s and the Italian in the 1890s.) The play introduced the word to the public, and journalists and politicians quickly took the term as their own to refer to Sicilian organized crime, distinguishing the phenomenon from brigandage, the Neapolitan camorra and common street delinquency.

     Despite the above distinctions, "mafia" was a slippery concept that had no clear or precise definition. As one writer indicated (1890s), "What is it? I don't know. It's almost impossible to define it. One tries to put together the notions of an animated spirit, boldness, arrogance and you will have something that resembles the mafia, however without constituting the phenomenon. The mafia is not a sect, nor an association, nor a set of regulations or statutes. The mafioso is not a thief or a common thug. He is simply a courageous and valiant man. The mafia is the recognition of one's own essence, the concept of personal strength, the single and only arbiter of differences of every clash of interests and ideas, not suffering the intolerance of superiority and, worse yet, the domination by others."

     The mafioso demands respect. If he is offended he will not turn to a third party to seek justice. If he were to do so, it would demonstrate weakness and violate omertà, a code of behavior that considers disgraceful he who runs to an authority to redress an issue. It is at this point that the word mafia evolved from an expression of character and goodness to one that could become a challenge to the society.

     The common criminal satisfies himself with short-term gains, while the mafioso strives to create for himself a platform from which, through coercion and stealth, he gains a lasting advantage with a minimum of risk and effort. Remaining at the margins of the law, he can work both sides of the street and move about with less visibility.

     It is interesting to note that the concept of mafia spread quickly outside of Sicily. By 1875, the word appeared in the languages of French, German and English (and presently around the globe) replacing local terms to become the operative word for organized crime. More to the point, it indicates an insidious phenomenon that evokes the mixed emotions of fear, respect and fascination with its combining features of secrecy, honor and supposed indestructibility.

     Important and often ignored are the advantages that accrue through the development of ties to an individualized higher-level mafia, the so-called white-collar mafiosi. This symbiotic relationship, which is integral to what makes mafia a unique criminal presence, is beneficial to both parties, and to the disadvantage of others, for it causes official corruption and penetration of the mafia into the political and economic sectors of the society. It is the coming together of the legitimate and illegitimate worlds to form a combine to monopolize both power and profit.

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