How ‘Mafia’ Became Associated With Organized Crime
The word originally had a positive connotation
I was surprised to learn that the word “Mafia” wasn’t always linked to organized crime.
The Mafia was a group that originated in Sicily as a long line of foreign defenders attacked the island. According to History, Sicilians banded together to protect themselves and have their own justice system. There was a word called mafiusi, synonymous for Mafia member — and at first, there was nothing criminal about it. The word just referred to someone suspicious of central authority, and often had a positive connotation.
“By the 19th century, some of these groups emerged as private armies, or “mafie,” who extorted protection money from landowners and eventually became the violent criminal organization known today as the Sicilian Mafia,” History said.
According to scholar Diego Gambetta, the word itself means “swagger” or “bravado” in Sicilian. It is derived from an adjective known as mafiusi. There became an American Mafia and an Italian Mafia, who both had traditions known as the omerta, a set of rules that people in the Mafia followed.
I’m currently watching The Sopranos and about halfway through season five of the show. Apparently, according to Eric Schaal at CheatSheet, real-life mobsters wondered whether The Sopranos had a source inside the Mafia.
How the word became associated with organized crime
But back to the Mafia — it originally originated in Sicily, an island that had been continuously ruled by foreign invaders. People on the island had to protect themselves from occupying forces, and these groups later became known as clans and families that had their systems of justice and retribution.
In the mid-19th century, private armies started taking advantage of the chaotic circumstances in Sicily. They began to acquire protection from landowners on the island for pay — and from here, the Sicilian Mafia came into fruition.
According to Dr. Mike La Sorte at NYU, what made people associate the Mafia with criminal activity was a playwright named Gaspare Mosca and an actor, Giuseppe Rizzotto. They started a new play set in a prison in Ucciardone, Sicily.
“This production would serve to popularize the Sicilian word Mafia and to change its traditional meaning from positive to negative,” La Sorte said.
In 1848, the Spanish Bourbons controlled Sicily. Mosca fought in an army that tried to oust the Bourbons, and then Mosca fled the Bourbon police by traveling with a group of actors that went to many Italian towns when attempts were unsuccessful. In 1860, a general in the unification of Italy, Giuseppe Garibaldi invaded Sicily, and Mosca fought in the military for two years. In 1862, Mosca returned to Sicily and met Rizzotto, who introduced Mosca to a publicist. The publicist suggested the two of them write a facetious play in prison, and the two started working on the play.
It would eventually be called “La vicaria di Palermo,” but Mosca would change its name. In Palermo, he noted there was a habit of calling anything out of the ordinary, but positive, mafiusi. The word described a very colorful but good-looking suit, and it referred to both attractive men and women. In the words of Mosca:
“In sum, the term signified a characteristic of a person that revealed a notable difference, a boldness, an impudence.”
However, one day, Mosca walked through the streets, and saw two men arguing and about to fight each other in the street. He heard one of the men say: “Varrissi fari u’ mafiusu cu mia?” In English, the phrase means “do you want to make like a mafioso with me?”
Mosca himself quickly changed the whole title of the play. He met with Rizzotto, and told Rizzotto, “let’s call the inmates mafiusi.” Then, the play was called “I mafiusi di la vicaria.” According to Gambetta, it was about a Palermo prison gang with a boss, an initiation ritual, and a code of silence. It later gained substantial commercial success and influence.
The mafiusi of Mosca and Rizzotto brought the term “mafia” into public culture — it quickly became associated with the negative connotation of organized crime that the term has today. In the words of La Sorte:
“The play brought together the myths and realities of Sicilian life by forming a legend of a sect of men’ forced’ by circumstances to search for justice in the illusion that they were participating in a noble ‘social protest,’ which was to burst its bounds and get out of hand.”
At the time, crime in Sicily spiked. The Italian government needed a word to refer to the spike in crime, and they first used the term “Mafia” in 1865 in Palermo, Sicily.
Not everyone liked the mafiusi having such a negative connotation. Giuseppe Pitre, a folklorist in Sicily, because, in the words of La Sorte, “it implicated Mafia as the bedrock, the driving force, of Sicilian popular culture.” Pitre said that Rizzotto and Mosca were responsible for transforming the word from s favorable to a negative connotation.
“Before, Mafia meant beauty, attractiveness, perfection, boldness, graciousness, and excellence. Now, its meaning had been so corrupted any definition is impossible,” Pitre said.
In 1893, the Italian dictionary defined Mafia as the “name of a secret organization in Sicily that has as its aim to achieve profits through illicit means.”
Of course, throughout history, the Mafia in the United States and Italy became associated with organized crime, political corruption, and high profile crime bosses like Al Capone. But the word originally came from “I mafiusi de la Vicaria,” a play that transformed the meaning of a previously positive word, and only after the playwright noticed an altercation where mafiusi was used. Without a chance encounter on the street, Mafia might still have a positive connotation today.