Would a Soprano by Any Other Name. . . .
Over the course of time, the descendants and initiates of these famous freedom fighters from days gone by still went around conducting their affairs in cells. Several of these bands went into the estate management business. Others formed elite theft squads called ‘Brigantaggia.’ Another group of cells dealt in underground business – e.g. prostitution, extortion, and so forth.
Since they had always been a rather informal collection of characters, they never decided on an official name. They only refer to themselves in such generic, or descriptive terms as “Family” or “This Thing We Do,” even today. Eventually, however, a name became associated with them. This name seems to have numerous etymologies, some more plausible than others.
The earliest, extant, documented reference to the term was found in a 1685 list of heretics spared by the Church after their conversion and penance, among them an ex-witch named Catarina la Licatisa, nicknamed Nomata ancor Maffia. Her enemies used the sobriquet to describe her haughtiness, her bravado, and ambition. Where did the term come from? At first, scholars thought that it might have derived from a Florentine slang word for ‘a pitiful person’. Others linked the term to the Piedmontese slang term ‘maufin,’ meaning ‘cutie.’
My friend’s mom, a US native who grew up in Sicily, gave me another etymology born from folk legend. According to her old world kin, the term came about when a number of brigantaggia rescued a young girl from a would-be rapist after her mother shouted “Ma Figlia! Ma Figlia! [My Daughter! My Daughter!].”
Most likely, the term came from the Saracens. According to one story, the Saracens initially came to Sicily before the Crusades. At first, they lived in caves, or mafie, in an attempt to hide from all the locals, who wanted them off the island. Yet, the word could very well come from the name of the Saracen sect themselves, the ‘Ma Afiir’, who went on to control Palermo. Sometime between the Tenth and Seventeenth Centuries, the word evolved in meaning and usage to denote a person who is gutsy, and won’t take shit from anybody.
During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, the honored and legendary defenders of Sicily had pretty much devolved into criminals. After all, they were powerful and organized. They had maintained an aura of fear and loyalty among the peasantry for hundreds of years. Italian officials attempted to control and demolish the brigantaggia. Still, law enforcement had yet to use the term ‘Mafia’ to describe them, referring to them instead as a ‘unioni o fratellanze’ or ‘camorristi.’
Playwrights Rizzotti and Mosca popularized the word in their 1862 comedy I mafiusi della Vicaria. Set in a prison, the play features the hierarchical structure and cutthroat nature that we nowadays associate with organized crime. Goethe University historian Henner Hess, one of the first scholars to do extensive research on the Mafia, writes that after the play, some of the original cells adopted the term as a name.
A few cells had already used the term Mafia to describe themselves, and had even begun to break it down into cute acronyms: for example, Morte Alla Francia, Italia Anela (“Death to France,” Italy groans) or Mazzini Autorizza Furti, Incendi, Avvelenamenti (“Mazzini authorizes theft, arson and poisoning).
In 1799, five men representing five separate cells used the name Mafia when they created their secret Masonic chapter (secret, because at the time, Roman Catholics weren’t allowed to be Freemasons).