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Mafia Word Origins

"The word Mafia became known throughout Italy for the first time in 1863, when a Sicilian writer, Giuseppe Rizzotto [sic--according to Hess, Rizzotti e Mosca, 2], wrote a play entitled "I Mafiusi di La Vicaria" which went through 2,000 performances, over a period of 23 years, of which 34 in the Italian language, in Rome alone, in 1884.

"According to Gaetano Mosca, the word mafia cannot be found in any Sicilian dictionary before 1868, when it was entered as a neologism in Traina's "Sicilian-Italian Dictionary."In another dictionary, Mortillaro's, published in 1878, the word is said to be of Piedmontese origin and to be synonymous with camorra. However, this is not correct.

"The adjective mafiusu (mafioso, in Italian) has been common in Sicily for at least two hundred yers. Cesareo, the poet, found the following verses in an eighteenth century manuscript:

Quannu vinisti vui, piciotta bedda
tutta la briaria si ribiddau
chista è la donna chiù mafiusiedda
chi l'anncilu, bedd' ancilu purtau.

(when you came, beautiful girl
the entire prison revolted
she is the finest-looking woman
that the angel, the beautiful angel, brought down).

"According to Cesareo, the word is of Arabic origin, but Pitré does not agree. He simply does not know. He only knows that the word was common in the Borgo section of Palermo and that it meant beauty, charm, perfection, excellence. Thus in Palermo, street vendors, or peddlers would advertise their brooms as scupi d''a mafia! Haju chiddi mafiusi veruu (Brooms that can't be beat! I have the real stuff).

"Capuana, the novelist, found that the word had the same meaning in Catania, where there has never been any Mafia. 'Mafia and its derivatives,' he wrote, 'always meant and do mean 'beauty, charm, perfection, excellence' in their field. Una ragazza mafiosa (a smart-looking girl); mafiusedda (rather charming, neat); casa mafiusedda (a fine looking house). The word mafia adds to the idea of beauty the idea of superiority, of bravery, the feeling of being a man, boldness, but never in the sense of arrogance or braggadocio. After 1860, however, it acquired a new meaning."

Henner Hess, in Mafia & Mafiosi: Origin, Power and Myth. Trans. Ewald Osers.

New York: NYUP, 1998, cites the same sources as Schiavo, and expands on his definitions. For him the word also has connotations of "boldness, ambition, arrogance" (1, Sciascia 1964). And, "A mafioso is simply a courageous, brave fellow who won't stand any nonsense from anyone" (1, Pitré 1889). He says that some believe that the word derives from the Arabic, "either from mahias, meaning a bold man or a braggart, or from Ma afir, the name of the Saracen tribe that ruled Palermo. A third theory of Arab origin relates mafia to maha, a quarry or a cave in a rock. The mafie, the tuff caves in the Marsala region, served the persecuted Saracens as hiding places and later provided hide-outs for other fugitives" (2, Lestingi 1884). Hess states that Giuseppe Loschiavo (not to be confused with Giovanni Schiavo) writes that before Garibaldi's landing, "the rebellious Sicilians had hidden out in the mafie near Marsala and had therefore subsequently, during their successful advance on Palermo, been called mafiosi, the people from the mafie" (2, Loschiavo 1964).

Hess goes on to write that the "term gained currency and first appeared in official language in 1865. In a letter of 10 August, 1865, the delegato di Pubblica Sicurezza, the police agent, in Carini justifies an arrest by the charge that the arrested man had committed the delitto di mafia" (3). " Gradually the delitto di mafia came to mean more the offence of manutengolo, of being a fence or planner of crimes, and not so much the offence of malandrino, of banditry, of being an executant criminal.

Eventually the word mafia was used, above all, for organized crime, until sensation-hungry journalists, confused northern Italian jurists and foreign authors interpreted it as the name of an organization. The emergence of the word was, then, linked with the emergence of a secret society and thus gave rise to fantastic speculations."(3).

He then goes on to add that the "theory which assigns the greatest antiquity to this society suggests that mafia is a corruption of the Arabic word mu afah, in which mu means something like 'inviolability, strength, vigour,' and afah something like "to secure, to protect.' Mu afah had therefore been an association which provided security for its members" (3). Among other possibilities, Hess also cites the Sicilian vespers (1282) and the slogan "Morte alla Francia Italia anela!" which he mistranslates as "Death to France, Italy groans" as opposed to desires. (3).

Yet another improbable source is seen "as an acronym for the slogan 'Mazzini autorizza furti, incendi, avvelenamenti" (Mazzini authorizes theft, arson, poisoning).

"And finally, the mafia was seen as a secret masonic society, said to have been founded by five men in Mazara del Vallo in 1799" (4). "About 1875 the concept off mafia penetrated also into German, French, and English" (4). He cites no sources.

The first published references I have been able to find in the US are:

The Mafiusi of Sicily. The Atlantic monthly. / Volume 37, Issue 219 Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Co. Publication Date: January 1876 City: Boston

"THE SARACENS IN ITALY ." LITTELL¹S LIVING AGE, Fifth Series, ~Volume i~iii, No. 1783. ‹ August 17, 1878.

"Italian Immigrants," Harper's Weekly, November 23, 1889, page 939. The latter reference was posted on the H-Itam list. Regrettably, I did not write down the name of the "poster" or the source.

"LYNCH LAW AND UNRESTRICTED IMMIGRATION." BY THE HON. HENRY CABOT LODGE, REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM MASSACHUSETTS. The North American review. / Volume 152, Issue 414. University of Northern Iowa Publication Date: May 1891

"The mafia and what led to the Lynching," Harper's Weekly, Vol35(March 28, 1891): 602-612.:  By 1891 the references to the mafia, in particular in reference to the New Orleans lynching, are almost too numerous to cite.

The tone of these articles varies quite a bit. Some are almost anthropological and merely try to describe the "phenomenon," others are sympathetic to the plight of Italians in Southern Italy and to that of Italian immigrants, while others still can only be described as scurrilous and essentially racist.

Given the current controversy over the use of the term by President Bush and Senator Biden, and the controversy over its meaning, I found the following article to be interesting.

A History Of The Last Quarter-Century In The United States. V. "The United States Will Pay", by E. Benjamin Andrews: pp. 71-91. Charles Scribner's Sons Publication Date: July, 1895

The article talks about the criminal exploits of the notorious and murderous Irish gang, the Molly Maguires. What is interesting and ironic is that, already in 1895, the author, uses the word Mafia to refer to the Molly Maguires. He writes:

"The principal honor of exposing and suppressing this Pennsylvania Mafia is due to Hon. Franklin B. Gowen, a law- yer, at the time President of the Penn-

sylvania and Reading Coal and Iron Co.

Knowing the uselessness of attempting the work with the local police, he, in 1873, secured from Pinkerton's Detective Agency in Chicago the services of one James MeParlan, a young Irishman of phenomenal tact and grit, to go among the Mollies as a secret detective."

It is, in other words, rather clear, that by 1895 the word Mafia could be used as a generic term to refer to criminals of any ethnic group. What is regrettable is that both the president and the senator chose to use the word in a context that made it clear that they were referring to the historical Italian American Mafia, regrettable because it suggests that they are as ignorant about the true state of organized crime in this country as they were to the true nature of the terrorist threats.

Because, while it is rather clear from the context that both the president and the senator were referring to the Italian American Mafia, this article written in 1895, uses the term Mafia to refer to Irish American criminals.

Ben Lawton

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