The word mafia derives from the Sicilian adjective mafiusu, which, roughly translated, means 'swagger', but can also be translated as 'boldness' or 'bravado'. In reference to a man, mafiusu (mafioso in Italian) in 19th century Sicily signified 'fearless', 'enterprising', and 'proud', according to scholar Diego Gambetta. In reference to a woman, however, the feminine-form adjective mafiusa means 'beautiful' or 'attractive'.
Large groups of Italian migrant workers, primarily from the south of the country, first arrived in the US due to a US labor shortage, which was a result of the US Civil War, the end of slave labor, and the hundreds of thousands killed in the war. As the migrant laborers from Sicily arrived, they were met with prejudice and discrimination. This is when the Sicilian word 'mafiusu' began to change from a positive connotation in Sicily to the negative and shortened 'mafia' in the US.
As migrant laborers from Sicily arrived for work, they created their own labor system called the 'padrone' system, based on the 'boss' systems which already existed during this period. The word padrone is an Italian word that means boss when translated to English. A 'padrone' or boss was the middle man between the English speaking businessmen and the laborers from Sicily who were unable to speak the language. He was in charge of the labor group including where they would work, the length of their employment, how much they were paid, and living quarters.
Labor laws were non-existent during this period, and the padrone system, like the boss systems, were not immune to corruption. Many times workers were exploited, never paid, or even given the work they were promised. As the 19th century turned into the 20th century, the migrant laborers from Sicily and the padrone system became synonymous with distrust. Strong leaders or padroni who were mafiosi became known as the American counterpart 'mafia boss', labor contracts became known as mafia contracts, further glorified in American film and television as time went on. The mafia concept would soon be accepted in Italy even though it had never been recognized there before.
Because Sicily was once an Islamic emirate from 831 to 1072, mafia may have come to Sicilian through Arabic, though the word's origins are uncertain. Possible Arabic roots of the word include:
- màha = quarry, cave; especially the mafie, the caves in the region of Marsala, which acted as hiding places for persecuted Muslims and later served other types of refugees, in particular Giuseppe Garibaldi's "Redshirts" after their embarkment on Sicily in 1860 in the struggle for Italian unification.
- mahyas (مهياص) = aggressive boasting, bragging
- marfud (مرفوض) = rejected, considered to be the most plausible derivation; marfud developed into marpiuni (swindler) to marpiusu and finally mafiusu.
- mu'afa (معافى) = safety, protection
- Ma àfir = the name of an Arab tribe that ruled Palermo. The local peasants imitated these Arabs and as a result the tribe's name entered the popular lexicon. The word mafia was then used to refer to the defenders of Palermo during the Sicilian Vespers against rule of the Capetian House of Anjou on 30 March 1282.
The public's association of the word with the criminal secret society was probably inspired by the 1863 play "I mafiusi di la Vicaria" ("The Mafiosi of the Vicaria") by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaspare Mosca. The words Mafia and mafiusi are never mentioned in the play; they were probably put in the title to add a local flair. 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 play had great success throughout Italy. Soon after, the use of the term mafia began appearing in the Italian state's early reports on the phenomenon. The word made its first official appearance in 1865 in a report by the prefect of Palermo,
Filippo Antonio Gualterio.