Etymology - "Mafia"

Like the varied influences foreigners established in Sicily, there are many different influences in the creation of the word 'mafia'. Over time its meaning has been changed by Sicilians and Sicily's conquerors.

The word 'Mafia' was first mentioned in literature was published in a list of heretics in 1668. It followed the name of a witch, and meant 'boldness', 'ambition', and 'arrogance'. None of these qualities were considered proper for a woman, and thus the word 'mafia' took on its first negative connotation. (Hess)

Many people also believe that Arabic affected the word 'mafia' during the period of Arab control of Sicily, after the fall of the Roman Empire in 846 AD. 'Mahias' is an Arab word meaning 'bold man', and this is believed to be incorporated into the modern term mafia, which also implies the bold and aggressive nature of its constituents. (Hess)

Characteristics of the mafia were influenced by many other groups who conquered Sicily (Please see History for more information), but the word remained more or less unaltered from the 1668 document, until 1861, and the Unification of Italy. Garibaldi, an important pro-Italian general, set off to Sicily to unify it with the mainland. When the Sacaren Tribe of Palermo heard of the impending invasion they set off to a set of caves in the Marsala region of Sicily. This set of caves was known as the 'mafie', and the Sacaren used the caves to hide from Garibaldi and his troops. Garibaldi proceeded to name the people hiding in the caves 'mafiosi'. (Hess)

By 1862, only a year after Garibaldi coined the term 'mafiosi', a play entitled 'I Mafiosi della Vicaria' emerged as very popular in Sicily, as well as on mainland Italy. The play centered on a group of men who were imprisoned, and their interactions with each other while in jail. The men portrayed are not delinquent criminals, but rather they are men who plan crimes, and use their powerful prowess to influence the actions of others. This type of organized crime was named, by the play, 'Mafia'. Due to the play's popularity, this concept of organized crime proliferated across Italy, and soon Europe. (Hess)

In 1865 the police were using the term 'mafia', especially the phrase 'delitto de Mafia' to describe a man who plans crimes and pays others to carry them out. Foreign reporters began to pick up on this, and reported on the 'mafia' or secret societies in Sicily and Italy. (Hess)

Knowledge of the mafia grew in America in the early 20th century when immigration from Italy was at its highest ever. Members of the Mafia came to America and continued their fear and power based crime business. Only then did reports of Mafia crime begin to be published in America, and the concept of the mafia became significantly better known. With the release of The Godfather in 1972, the term 'mafia' became very widespread in secular life across the world, and especially in America. A new fascination had begun, but its history goes back nearly 2200 years.