A mafia is a type of organized crime syndicate whose primary activities are protection racketeering, arbitrating disputes between criminals, and brokering and enforcing illegal agreements and transactions.[1] Mafias often engage in secondary activities such as gambling, loan sharking, drug-trafficking, prostitution, and fraud.

The term "Mafia" was originally applied to the Sicilian Mafia and originates in Sicily, but it has since expanded to encompass other organizations of similar methods and purpose, e.g., "the Russian Mafia" or "the Japanese Mafia". The term is applied informally by the press and public; the criminal organizations themselves have their own terms (e.g. the Sicilian Mafia and Italian-American Mafia refer to their organizations as "Cosa Nostra"; the "Japanese Mafia" calls itself "Yakuza"; and "Russian Mafia" groups often call themselves "Bratva").

When used alone and without any qualifier, "Mafia" or "the Mafia" typically refers to either the Sicilian Mafia or the Italian-American Mafia and sometimes Italian organized crime in general (e.g., Camorra, 'Ndrangheta, Sacra Corona Unita, Stidda, etc.).


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.[2] 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 into English. A 'padrone' or boss was the middleman 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, was 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.[3][4][5][6][7]
  • mahyas (مهياص) = aggressive boasting, bragging[5]
  • marfud (مرفوض) = rejected, considered to be the most plausible derivation; marfud developed into marpiuni (swindler) to marpiusu and finally mafiusu.[8]
  • mu'afa (معافى) = safety, protection[6]
  • Ma àfir = the name of an Arab tribe that ruled Palermo.[9][5] 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.[10]

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).[11] 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.[12]

Other Languages
العربية: مافيا
azərbaycanca: Mafiya
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Мафія
български: Мафия
bosanski: Mafija
brezhoneg: Mafia
català: Màfia
čeština: Mafie
Cymraeg: Maffia
dansk: Mafia
Deutsch: Mafia
eesti: Maffia
Ελληνικά: Μαφία
español: Mafia
Esperanto: Mafio
euskara: Mafia
فارسی: مافیا
français: Mafia
Gaeilge: Maifia
한국어: 마피아
հայերեն: Մաֆիա
हिन्दी: माफ़िया
hrvatski: Mafija
Ido: Mafio
Bahasa Indonesia: Mafia
italiano: Mafia
עברית: מאפיה
ქართული: მაფია
қазақша: Мафия
Latina: Mafia
latviešu: Mafija
lietuvių: Mafija
magyar: Maffia
македонски: Мафија
മലയാളം: മാഫിയ
Malti: Mafja
Bahasa Melayu: Mafia
မြန်မာဘာသာ: မာဖီးယား
Nederlands: Maffia
日本語: マフィア
Napulitano: Mafia
norsk: Mafia
occitan: Màfia
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Mafiya
polski: Mafia
português: Máfia
română: Mafie
русский: Мафия
sardu: Mafia
Scots: Mafia
shqip: Mafia
sicilianu: Mafia
Simple English: Mafia
slovenčina: Mafia
slovenščina: Mafija
کوردی: مافیا
српски / srpski: Мафија
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Mafija
suomi: Mafia
svenska: Maffia
Tagalog: Mafia
тоҷикӣ: Мафия
Türkçe: Mafya
українська: Мафія
اردو: مافیا
vèneto: Mafia
vepsän kel’: Mafii
Tiếng Việt: Mafia
Winaray: Mafia
ייִדיש: מאפיא
粵語: 黑手黨
中文: 黑手党