By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
The Italian concepts of mafioso and mafia evolved from the old Sicilian word mafiusu. The interesting aspect of that evolution was that mafiusu in the spoken Sicilian was uttered in a variety of contexts. Mafiusu did not in and of itself denote delinquency. Rather its subjects referred to the qualities of things, behaviors, personalities or values. It could indicate boldness, singularity, supremacy, distinction, impertinence, arrogance, superiority, eloquence, brassiness-a certain notable essence that stood out worthy of note, not customary or commonplace.
The Sicilian-Italian dictionary, Nuovo vocabolario siciliano-italiano, published in 1868, contains the first mention of "mafioso" with the definition of criminal. (The traditional meanings, mentioned above, are also part of the definition.) The word "mafia" is not included in the dictionary, "Mafia," which was coined from "mafioso," does not appear in Sicilian or Italian dictionaries until later, after it had gained acceptance as the word designating Sicilian organized crime.
An original meaning of mafiusu indicated a characteristic that would elicit favorable comment, not mundane, beyond expectation. A lovely flower, a strikingly beautiful woman, an exceptionally adorable infant, an eye-catching item of adornment, these and others considered worthy of a complimentary "mafiusu." Here are a few actual examples from nineteenth-century sources. "The carabiniere was dressed in a very splendid uniform very mafiusu." A fruit vendor would announce aloud along the streets "Frutta mafiusu." A terracotta hawker shouted out his wares by declaring "Stoviglie mafiusi."
Mafiusu had another reference, that which defined a life situation or a way of behaving, a custom. In this instance, a mafiusu person was one who demonstrated an aura of superiority: boldness (in a good sense)ůsome characteristic highly valued in Sicilian culture, which might include charisma, an expansive and attractive personality, one that draws attention. The person stands out from the crowd in his easy self-confidence or his assertiveness or even an aggressive nature, as in, "You want to act the mafiusu with me?" ("Vurrissi faru 'u mafiusu cu mia?), one man exclaimed to another on a street in Il Borgo, a 19th century fishing village outside the walls of Palermo. The defining feature of the mafiusu personality in this context is perhaps best expressed by this saying abut Sicilian manhood: "The mafiusu is simply a valorous man who does not tolerate flies on his nose."
From this historical mix is derived the proper noun mafia, a coined word emerging in the 1860s, after Italian unification, to distinguish brigandage, street gangs, common delinquency and plundering from a phenomenon that posed a threat to or diminished the authority of the nascent Italian state.
To many mainland Italians, Sicily was an unknown quantity, rather exotic, with a quite different history, culture, and ethnicity, more African than Italian. There was a deep abiding suspicion of Sicilians, much more than the usual stereotyping and prejudice that prevailed among the Italian regions, in particular between the north and the south. As many observers have noted, in the early days there was more to the mafia beside the acquisition of power and wealth. It had more to do with a spirit of rebellion, more about the class struggle-rich versus poor-rather then simply naked greed; more about the hatred of the pillaging upper classes and blatant hypocrisy than the lack of moral restraint. In this Marxist analysis, the society was unjust, thus justifying the violation of laws because they served only the select few: that five percent who lived off the ninety-five percent.
The original meanings of mafia are now obsolete. Mafiusu became mafioso, a member of the mafia, a set of dark and sinister evils of one kind or another. Mafia turned out to be the perfect word for a sophisticated model of high criminality. Within a few decades it became incorporated into many languages around the globe. Mafia entered the Sicilian dictionaries in the 1870s, the Italian in the 1890s, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the rising tide of Italian immigrants at the turn of the century.
The renown folklorist Giuseppe Pitre` (1841-1910), who was witness to the transformation of mafiusu (good) to mafia (bad), saw it as a regrettable development, remarking, "What a pity."
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