Thursday, November 11, 2010


"Nicolo Rizzuto, considered the head of the most important mafia group in Montreal, has been shot dead at his home in a move being blamed on rival crime clans, police and Canadian media said."
- News report, SMH 11.11.2010

Mafia. The Mob. The Black Hand, The Honoured Society. Cosa Nostra… interesting names, interesting people, interesting culture. Mario Puzo created expressions in connection with the Mafia that have become part of our language – “Make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “A man with a briefcase can steal more than a man with a gun.” Even movies pay homage to The Godfather, as in You've Got Mail: “The Godfather is the I Ching. The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom. The Godfather is the answer to any question.”

It started me thinking as to how the term Mafia originated. Following is what I found:

- The first written use of the term Mafia was in 1668 when it followed the name of a witch in a list of heretics. It meant bold and arrogant, criticisms when applied to a female.

- In 1861, with the unification of Italy, Italian general Garibaldi sought to unify Sicily with the mainland. The Saracen tribe of Palermo heard of the impending invasion and took to the caves at Marsala in Sicily. The caves were known as the “mafie” and Garibaldi named its inhabitants “Mafiosi”.

- By 1862, only a year after Garibaldi coined the term 'mafiosi', a play entitled I mafiusi di la Vicaria ("The Mafiosi of the Vicaria") emerged as very popular in Sicily, as well as on mainland Italy. The play is about a Palermo prison gang with traits similar to the Mafia: a boss, an initiation ritual, and talk of "umirtà" (omertà or code of silence) and "pizzu" (a codeword for extortion money). The men plan crimes and use their power to influence the actions of others. This type of organised crime was named, by the play, 'Mafia'. Due to the play's popularity, this concept of organised crime proliferated across Italy, and soon Europe

- When mafioso Joseph Valachi testified to the US government in 1962, he revealed that American mafiosi referred to their organisation by the term cosa nostra ("our thing" or "this thing of ours").

- Italian investigators believed that this term applied only to the American Mafia, not the Sicilian Mafia. In 1984, the Mafia turncoat Tommaso Bescetta revealed to the anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone that the term was used by the Sicilian Mafia as well. Other informants have since confirmed it.

- The Sicilian Mafia has used other names to describe itself throughout its history, such as "The Honoured Society". Mafiosi are known among themselves as "men of honour" or "men of respect".

- Black Hand, or La Mano Nera in Italian, was a type of extortion racket. It was a method of extortion, not a criminal organisation as such, though gangsters of Camorra and the Mafia practised it.

“It is no secret that organized crime in America takes in over forty billion dollars a year. This is quite a profitable sum, especially when one considers that the Mafia spends very little for office supplies.”

- Woody Allen

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