What is the Mafia?
The Mafia, a criminal society, originated in Sicily when the large landowners put their estates into the hands of ruffianly “security men” during the disturbances which followed Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. These men terrorized the peasantry, and finally turned on the landowners.
Their principles were never to appeal to the law and never to help in the detection of crime. By faithfully following their savage code, the Mafia soon became powerful not only in the country but in the towns. Successive Italian governments tried in vain to suppress it.
The word mafia originated in Sicily. The Sicilian adjective mafiusu, roughly translated, means ‘swagger’, but can also be translated as ‘boldness’ or bravado’. In reference to a man, mafiusu in 19th century Sicily was ambiguous, signifying a bully, arrogant but also fearless, enterprising, and proud, according to scholar Diego Gambetta. In reference to a woman, however, the feminine-form adjective mafiusa means ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’.
With European emigration to the United States during the last century, an organization similar to the Mafia came into being there, with the familiar set-up of ruling families, infiltration of society, protection rackets, and bloody acts of vendetta and revenge. Its heyday was probably the Prohibition era. But it is still believed to exert considerable influence in American life.
The term 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, etc.)