The word mafia (Italian: [ˈmaːfja]) 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'.
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:
- ma'afi (معفي) = exempted. In Islamic law, Jizya, is the yearly tax imposed on non-Muslims residing in Muslim lands. And people who pay it are "exempted" from prosecution.
- 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 perhaps 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. 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 .