Whether or not many of us are willing to admit it, the truth speaks for itself: we have a fascination with organised crime, and at the heart of it is today’s word. Not only is the lifestyle glamorized in films like The Godfather and Goodfellas, but, even in real life, almost everyone can name some of the big mafia names, from Capone to Luciano and Genovese to Gotti. While we may find the idea of it compelling, most people do not know much about the mafia (which is kind of the point of a secret society, anyway), so maybe we should start by exploring the word itself.
Though, in its general sense, we define the word mafia as an organised secret society of criminals, many are shocked to learn that there really is no such thing as the Sicilian mafia, at least not as we think of it: clandestine Sicilian (and Italian) crime organisations refer to themselves by their individual group names, such as Cosa Nostra (our thing), Stidda (star), and ‘Ndràngheta (heroism/virtue). The word “mafia” directly comes from a Sicilian adjective, mafiusu, which, during the early and middle 19th century, when these Sicilian organized crime groups were forming, represented the characteristics of forceful, fearless, and proud. As for how this word became attributed to organised crime, much of the credit seems to go to a play in 1863 by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaspare Mosca called “I mafiusi di la Vicaria” (“The Mafiosi of the Vicaria”), which tells the story of a Sicilian prison gang.
Mafia – history
Beyond the word itself, the Sicilian mafia was founded as a by-product of modernisation and change. The majority of the 1800s saw Sicily exposed to dynamic changes: feudalism was dying out, policing of large lands was no longer privatized, large amounts of land were being redistributed, and Sicily became part of the Italian state. Unfortunately, the new governing structure was unable to cope, due to a lack of experience as well as a lack of manpower- often less than 350 police for the entire island. With the government unable to adequately “police” large portions of the island, these formerly private policing forces began establishing themselves as groups of makeshift guardians of peace and order (for a price): this was the birth of modern Sicilian/Italian organised crime which is believed to have a current membership of 5,000 to 8,000 and produce $100 billion worth of criminal activity annually.
Demonstrating their continued affiliation with the upper class, the first mention of our word in English comes from the October 11th 1866 edition of The Times, which writes that: “Indeed, the Mafia, a secret society is said to include among its members many persons of an elevated class.” Due to the word’s potential for ambiguity when referring to all sorts of organised crime, it was not long until it was being applied to other groups, such as The Chicago Tribune’s 1891 heading: “Chinese mafias in California. An organisation of assassins that the law is powerless to suppress.”
Within the last several decades though, we have also seen the term broadened again to encompass virtually any group that exerts some kind of secretive influence, as can be seen in a 1970 issue of the New Yorker that states in an article that: “The composers’ Mafia, with its dedication to atonality and the production of new noises, holds no terrors for him.”