Where does the word “mafia” (really) come from?

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Associated with Sicily all over the world, etymologically this word referred to one’s ostentation of power over others

As soon as a Sicilian crosses the Strait of Messina and tells someone from when they come, they can hear the same reply: “Ah! Sicilia mafia”. A reductive and unfair association of ideas, which makes this word (and the tragic story behind it) famous all over the world. The origins of the phenomenon are universally known, although the opinions concerning the etymology of the term are not as clear. Ever since it was officially recognized, that is in the “New Sicilian-Italian vocabulary” written by Antonino Traina and published in Palermo between 1868 and 1873, the word “mafia” was in fact synonymous with arrogance and boldness, and it then spread to other dialects of Southern Italy.

However, in the dialects of Northern Italy the entry “mafia” or “maffia” initially indicated only a bold action, perceivable with a hint of admiration or reproach according to the context. On the contrary, it has been assumed that in Sicily a more negative meaning predominated, since the word “mafia” was associated with one’s ostentation of material goods and, consequently, with one’s power over others.

Other theories trace the word back to a more remote era and to a more distant land. In fact, some think of an influence from the Arabic “maḥyāṣ” (blusterous) and from the equivalent noun “maḥyaṣa”. Equally convincing is the idea that the term would come from “mo’afiah”, literally referring to an arrogant action or behavior. And, if we cannot explain why such a likeness has not been noticed for centuries and has not left traces in any written sources, another hypothesis is based on the biblical tradition instead, where the name Maffeo (from which “mafia”) is attested as a less common variant of Matteo. First of all, the names ending in -eo were negatively connoted; besides, the apostle Matteo, once joined to Jesus Christ, celebrated this event giving a great banquet to put himself on display.

Therefore, no matter if Israelite, Arab or Italic once, this word and the mentality to which it belongs would now seem to be far more widespread than many might think.

 

 

Translated into English by Eva Luna Mascolino

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