Word of the Month: Mafia

This past month, Home Box Office, or HBO, a US subscription television service began broadcasting the fifth season of The Sopranos. The Emmy-winning series dramatizes the life of a New Jersey organized crime boss, Tony Soprano and his two “families”—his wife and children and his business associates. Unlike earlier mob-dramas like The Godfather, this series does not treat mobsters as men of honor; Tony Soprano is a violent sociopath, a thug who abuses and mistreats those closest to him. The series has earned host of awards and consistently high ratings.

Because of the premiere of what will probably be the penultimate season of the popular series, our word of the month is mafia, n., a criminal organization; originating in Sicily, but with offshoots operating in the United States; from the Italian, probably a back formation from mafioso, a member of the organization, the ultimate etymology is unknown; 1866.

What interests us here is not the violence of the show or even the nude women who dance in Tony’s strip club (being a subscription cable service, HBO is not limited by same broadcast standards of terrestrial television networks), but rather the language of the show. The series is replete with mob jargon and Italian words, usually spoken using the Sicilian-American pronunciation.

A combination of Southern Italian and Sicilian dialect and several generations in America have rendered some of the Italian terms in The Sopranos barely recognizable. These dialects have a few some distinct consonant shifts in their pronunciation. The letter C is often transmuted to a /g/ sound, and vice versa. Similarly, P becomes /b/ and D is sounded as /t/. Final sounds are often dropped. Thus compare becomes /gumba/ and comare is pronounced /guma/ or, with the New York R added, /gumaɹ/.

Most of the terms, however, are not so difficult for the average American to understand. They are ordinary English words that have particular meanings in the jargon of organized crime. Some of the more common ones, illustrated with quotations from the show, are:

a fa Napoli, interj., Southern Italian dialect, literally go to Naples, but used in the same sense as go to hell.

action, n., 1. gambling, 1887; 2. profit from a venture, esp. from illegal activities, 1957. “As far as two percent of his action, that’s up to you to settle.” (Ep. 6, Pax Soprana)

administration, n., to top-level of the mob hierarchy, composed of the boss, underboss, and consigliere.

associate, n., a criminal who works for and with the mob, but is not a formal member of the organization. “They will undoubtedly be focused on the, as yet unsolved, execution style slaying of Soprano family associate Brendan Filone.” (Ep. 8, The Legend Of Tennessee Moltisanti)

beef, n., a complaint or disagreement, 1899. “These guys I had a beef with at the newsstand.” (Ep. 12, Isabella)

book, n., illegal gambling, from the notebook in which bets are recorded, 1812.

books, the, n., the membership rolls of a mob family. “The books are closed [...] They’re not accepting any new members.” (Ep. 2, 46 Long)

bootleg, 1. v., to trade in illegal liquor, from 1889, after the practice of smuggling bottles of liquor in high boots. 2. adj., counterfeit, unlicensed. “The feds are never gonna surveil an old folks home. I know that’s why I got six truckloads of bootleg polident coming in.” (Ep. 9, Boca)

borgata, n., an mob family, 1963, literally village in Italian.

boss of bosses, n., the leader of the Five Families of New York, no longer in use by the mob, but still found in the press, often in the original Italian, capo di tutti capi.

boss, n., the head of a organized crime family, 1845, the standard English sense is that of a supervisor or overseer, from the Dutch baas meaning master, use in English dates to the early 19th C, first appearing in the works of Washington Irving, although usage by Dutch speakers in New York is recorded as far back as the mid-17th C. “I mean when Jackie was acting boss no one minded ‘cause it all evened out at the end of the day.” (Ep. 6, Pax Soprana)

break an egg, v., to murder.

burn, v., to murder, 1933.

button man, n., a low-ranking member of a criminal organization, a soldier, 1969. Not to be confused with button.

button, n., full-fledged membership in an criminal organization. “They’re talking like the Moltisanti kid might get his button.” (Ep. 17, Commendatori)

can, the, n., prison, 1912. “There are men in the can better looking than my sister.” (Ep. 18, Big Girls Don’t Cry)

cannoli, n. pl., tube of pastry with a sweet filling, such as sweet ricotta cheese or cream, 1925, from the Italian plural of cannolo, ultimately from canna, cane or tube. “Get a pastry box. Move it! That’s better. Now fill it with cannoli, sfogliatelle, and napoleons.” (Ep. 8, The Legend Of Tennessee Moltisanti), “Leave the gun...bring the cannoli.” (The Godfather, 1972)

capo, n., an organized crime leader, one who heads a crew, 1952, from the Italian for head, often Anglicized into captain. “Three of my capos have their mothers in this place?” (Ep. 11, Nobody Knows Anything)

cappicola, n., spiced Italian ham, pronounced /gɑba gul/ in Sicilian dialect. “We had sandwiches brought in the other night, four with ham, salami, cappicola, one eggplant, and the other with tomato and mozzarella.” (Ep. 22, From Where To Eternity)

clip, v., to murder, 1928. “One of the reasons that they tried to have me clipped is because I’m seeing a shrink.” (Ep. 13, I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano)

comare, n., a mistress, pronounced /guma/ in Sicilian dialect. “I should have stayed with my comare tonight.” (Ep. 19, The Happy Wanderer)

Commission, The, n., the mob’s ruling body, composed of the bosses of the Five Families.

connected, adj., associated with or a member of an organized crime family, 1977. “I’m trying to think. Did I ever meet any connected guys from Delaware?” (Ep. 17, Commendatori)

consigliere, n., a counselor or advisor, from the Italian.

contract, n., an offer of money for a murder, a command to murder, 1941.

Cosa Nostra, n., the mafia, 1963, from the Italian for our thing. “Who invented the mafia? What? La Cosa Nostra, who invented that?” (Ep. 8, The Legend Of Tennessee Moltisanti)

crew, n., a criminal gang, 1946. “There was a time in my life when being with the Tony Soprano crew was all I ever dreamed of.” (Ep. 2, 46 Long)

don, n., the head of an organized crime family, the capo or boss, 1952, from the Italian term of respect.

earner, n., a person who makes a lot of money for a criminal organization. “But he’s one of my best guys, a terrific earner.” (Ep. 26, Funhouse)

eat alone, v., to keep the profits of a criminal enterprise to oneself, not to share with the rest of the organization. “But our uncle, does he eat alone? He doesn’t even pass the salt.” (Ep. 6, Pax Soprana)

enforcer, n., a thug who uses violence, including murder, to execute the criminal organization’s wishes, 1929. “Not seized today, although named in the indictments, was alleged Soprano enforcer and loan-sharking chief, Michael “Grab-Bag” Palmice.” (Ep. 13, I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano)

executive game, n., a card game for celebrities and other high-rollers that play on credit, paying high interest rates for the privilege. “That’s a certain kind of player. That’s why we call it the executive game.” (Ep. 19, The Happy Wanderer)

family, n., a crime organization, in modern mob use from 1963, but an older and probably separately coined sense of a criminal gang dates to the mid-18th C. “Since you are at the helm, it all gets back to putting up bigger blinds. Really limiting your exposure to potential RICO boo-boos. The only way to run a family these days is bunker style.” (Ep. 14, Guy Walks Into A Psychiatrist’s Office)

Five Families, n., the five major Italian-American organized crime families of New York, the Gambino, Genovese, Lucchese, Colombo, and Bonanno families. “Wasn’t it Salvatore Lucana, better known as Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, who organized the five families?” (Ep. 8, The Legend Of Tennessee Moltisanti)

flip, v., to inform to law enforcement authorities. “He flipped about ten years ago. He got busted for peddling H.” (Ep. 5, College)

friend of ours, n., a person associated with a criminal organization, esp. a made guy. “Jimmy, let me introduce you to a friend of ours. This is Joey from Dover, Delaware.” (Ep. 17, Commendatori)

fungoo, interj., fuck you, a dialectical pronunciation of the Italian affanculo, there are various English spellings and pronunciations.

G, n., a thousand dollars, abbrev. for grand, 1928.

get a place ready, c.phr., to find site to dispose of a corpse.

give a pass, v., to grant a reprieve, esp. from being murdered.

go away to college, v., to go to prison.

goombah, n., a trusted male friend, from a dialectical pronunciation of the Italian compare, popularized by boxer Rocky Graziano, 1955.

H, n., heroin. “He got busted for peddling H.” (Ep. 5, College)

heavy, adj., armed. “Next time you come in, you come heavy or not at all.” (Ep. 4, Meadowlands)

hit, v. & n., to murder, an underworld killing, an order to commit such a killing, 1942 for the verb, 1950 for the noun. “That’s how they got tipped off about the Bevilaqua hit, huh?” (Ep. 26, Funhouse)

hot place, n., a location where law enforcement conducts or is thought to conduct surveillance on organized crime.

ice, v., to murder, 1941.

joint, the, n., prison, 1933.

juice, v., to receive money from or for illegal activities, esp. usurious interest, 1935. “You’d rather be juiced than pay all at once.” (Ep. 19, The Happy Wanderer)

lam, v., to flee, 1886, from the late-16th C meaning to beat or strike, also a noun, esp. in the phrase on the lam, 1911. “He might’ve recognized me at the gas station; he could lam any time.” (Ep. 5, College)

large, n., a thousand dollars, 1972. “He said there’s twenty-five large in it if we could get him this here ‘get.’” (Ep. 3, Denial, Anger, Acceptance)

loanshark, n., someone who lends money at usurious interest, to lend money at those rates, 1905.

made guy, n., a member of the mob. “Made guy; he flipped about ten years ago. He got busted for peddling H.” (Ep. 5, College)

make, v., to initiate into a secret organization, esp. the mob, 1833.

mattresses, go to (or hit the), c.phr., to engage in a mob war, 1969, from the mattresses used for sleeping in mob hideout. “No one’s going to the mattresses this day and age.” (Ep. 4, Meadowlands)

mob, n., a criminal organization, the mafia, 1927, from an older sense of a criminal gang, 1791, originally a 17th C word for a riotous and disorganized group of people, a clipping of the Latin mobile vulgus. “We just don’t want this place to become another mob hangout like the old Vesuvio.” (Ep. 13, I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano)

mobbed up, adj., associated with or run by organized crime, 1973. “I’m in the waste management business. Everybody immediately assumes you’re mobbed up.” (Ep. 5, College)

mobster, n., a member or an criminal organization, 1917.

Mustache Pete, n., derogatory term for the older generation of Mafiosi, originally simply a reference to any mustachioed Italian, 1938.

nut, n., a share of money from illegal activity, 1929.

O.C., n., law enforcement abbrev. for organized crime. “I been thinking about taking courses while I’m in the can, Psychology, Criminology, and maybe go give lectures at police departments on O.C..” (Ep. 25, The Knight In White Satin Armor)

omertà, n., a vow of silence, 1909, from a dialectical pronunciation of the Italian umiltà, or humility, in the Italian the term has a broader sense of submission to the Mafia hierarchy.

paesano, n., friend, from the Italian for villager.

pay tribute, v., to give a share of the profit from an illegal venture to the boss. “You know, you got a reputation for immaturity. And it’s not gonna be improved by not paying tributes the acting boss demands of you.” (Ep. 2, 46 Long)

pazzo, adj., crazy, from the Italian, often pronounced as /obætzo/ or /ubætz/. “He looked at me like I was fucking pazzo.” (Ep. 12, Isabella)

pen, the, n., prison, a clipping of penitentiary.

piece of work, n., a murder.

piece, n., a firearm, 16th C.

pinch, v., 1. to steal, 17th C; 2. to be arrested, 1837. “They were gonna pinch you for leaving the scene, but I got you out of it.” (Ep. 25, The Knight In White Satin Armor)

pop, v., to murder. “I hear Tony S’s own mother wants him popped.” (Ep. 12, Isabella)

rat, n., an informer, 1902.  “Through the mouth, the guy was a rat. The eye is just how Francis [Ford Coppola] framed the shot [in The Godfather]. For the shock value.” (Ep. 4, Meadowlands)

RICO, n., abbrev. for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, 1970, a law that broadens law enforcement’s powers to investigate and prosecute organized crime.

shakedown, n., an instance of extortion, 1902, also a verb. “But it’s reparations that I seek. Why don’t we call this what it is. A shake down.” (Ep. 10, A Hit Is A Hit)

shy, n., interest charged by a loanshark, from shylock. “You tell my uncle that he gets to keep five percent, five percent of his shy, his sports betting, same with the coke. The joint fitters union, it’s all his, okay?” (Ep. 15, Do Not Resuscitate)

shylock, n., a loanshark, after the character in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, late-19th C. “Did you tell him [...] that ten cents out of every dollar that goes into his kick is directly related to your shylock business?” (Ep. 6, Pax Soprana)

sit-down, n., a meeting, esp. one to resolve a dispute. “I’m arranging a sit down for him with Hesh.” (Ep. 10, A Hit Is A Hit)

soldier, n., a rank-and-file member of a criminal organization, as in foot soldiers, 1963. “Loyal soldier, if you will, and he winds up dead ... Soldier?! Brendan Filone, associate, soldier?!” (Ep. 8, The Legend of Tennessee Moltisanti)

stand-up guy, n., someone who lives up to his obligations regardless of the cost. “Your father would catch a bullet for you. Don’t you ever forget that. He’s a stand-up guy.” (Ep. 20, D-Girl)

taste, n., a share in the profits from an illegal enterprise. “Anymore Porsches disappear, make it two towns over, and I want a taste.” (Ep. 14, Guy Walks Into A Psychiatrist’s Office)

tax, v., to take a percentage of the profits from a subordinate’s illegal activities. “Are you telling me that since I’m the new boss I should tax Hesh?” (Ep. 6, Pax Soprana)

underboss, n., the second in command in a criminal organization. “Junior Soprano, alleged boss of the Jersey crime family that bears his name, was indicted today on federal racketeering charges, along with Lawrence ‘Larry Boy’ Barese, ailing alleged underboss, Joseph ‘Beppy’ Sasso, and thirteen other reputed mob figures.” (Ep. 13, I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano)

vig, n., the interest paid to a loanshark on a loan, clipping of vigorish, 1912, probably from the Russian for earnings, via Yiddish. “The Knicks lost, lieutenant. You’re down two large. Lay off the vig?” (Ep. 4, Meadowlands)

whack, v., to murder. “What are you saying? That unconsciously she tried to whack her best friend?” (Ep. 2, 46 Long)

wiseguy, n., a member of a criminal organization. “I don’t know which is more embarrassing, to be caught in a bordello or to be caught with the wiseguy.” (Ep. 11, Nobody Knows Anything)

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