Bryan McLucas
Alex Wier
Lin 402
17 March, 1997

Mobspeak: The Language of the Mafia

Mobspeak is a language that grows out of secrecy, and who can be more secret than the Mafia? The anti-social nature of the Mob is the perfect breeding ground for an "Antilanguage," which is, according to M. A. K. Halliday, a language that develops out of an antisociety which stands as a mode of resistance' to the society within which it exists (Butler 1). In his 1976 article, Halliday suggests that in these societies, a type of language forms in an effort to exclude outsiders for various reasons. One striking reason for the existence of an antilanguage is to hide the activities of the group. Halliday gives evidence for this claim through the existence of Elizabethan thieves cant, a form of communication derived in the Calcuttan underworld that thieves use to speak to one another without fear of incriminating themselves. Similarly, the Mafia -- which is often the target of FBI wire-taps -- requires its own thieves cant. The Mob constantly tries to hide its activities from the authorities. One way to accomplish this goal is to use somewhat cryptic vocabulary. For instance, there are over twenty words for the verb to kill'. If someone were to disrespect The Family' somebody might do a piece of work on' him. He could get whacked, erased, burned, clipped, iced, or hit -- just to name a few.

In order to have a full understanding of the Mafia's unique use of language it is necessary to realize the context in which it is used. The Mafia's major business is providing "protection" for merchants in their territory. Basically, they insure that no other criminals will give any of their clients trouble. However, when anything comes under mob protection, the Mafia considers itself its "owner". They do not offer it protection from themselves. They force restaurants, nightclubs, and bars under their protection. Once they "own" an establishment they immediately run it into the ground, often by frequenting the restaurant, etc., and running up tabs they have no intentions of paying. The actual owners are held in check by intimidation. In WiseGuy, a non-fiction account of Mafia life, Nicholas Pileggi quotes a Mafia member, describing the manner in which the Mafia treats those they "own":

"Then, after a few weeks, when the tabs got to be a few grand, the owner would come over. He'd try to be polite. But no matter how nice he tried to be, we'd always make it into a war. `You fuck!' we'd scream. `After all the business we brought you! You got the nerve to embarrass me in front of my friends? Call me a deadbeat? You fuck, you're dead. You miserable bastard cocksucker....' And so forth and so forth.

(Henry Hill -- WiseGuy)

However, the protection from others the Mafia provides is absolutely unequaled. This is accomplished through the systematic intimidation of everyone who would be prone to harassing their protected businesses. The Mafia is extremely rough with people that they perceive as a "problem", often using "hits" as a solution. If they are not going to "whack" the "problem", they will often hospitalize them to guarantee no future transgressions. These are incredibly tough individuals, and their uniform use of profanity is a reflection of their lifestyle. Most of the Mafia's intimidation is through their use of language. It is a rare occasion for anyone to have a talk with a mob member and continue to give them trouble. Their use of language is their first and foremost means of keeping people in their respective places. They can normally instill enough fear in people that physical violence becomes unnecessary. In this sense, they have evolved their way of speaking into a means of intimidation. This is the major reason for the Mafia's overuse of expletives. It is not unusual in FBI wiretap transcriptions of Mafia conversations for the word "fuck" to appear up to five and six times in a single sentence. This is due to the fact that profanity is so rampant in the Mafia's vernacular that it has lost its impact. Therefore, they overuse these words in an attempt to give them some semblance of meaning. The Mafia utilizes excessive profanity just as exaggerations are used to give a sense of an extreme. A similar diminutive effect can be seen in the mainstream overuse of words such as very, really, and so (Ex. Kindergartners' vocabularies are so so very very limited). Without the introduction of a new or stronger expletive, repetition of the existing profanities are necessary. In a sense, the same words become their own intensifiers.

Silence is golden to the Mafia. It is often what protects them most. If one does not talk about what he is doing, then no one will know. The Omerta, which is the Mafia's vow of silence, is strictly upheld. A shining example of the tight-lipped Mafia is the 1961 Congressional Hearing concerning gambling, layoff betting, bribery, and the Mafia in which Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal was forced to testify:

     THE CHAIRMAN: Are you known as Lefty?

     MR. ROSENTHAL: I respectfully decline to answer the question, as I honestly
                    believe my answer might tend to incriminate me. 

     SENATOR MUNDT: Are you left-handed?

     MR. ROSENTHAL: I respectfully decline to answer the question, as I honestly
                    believe my answer might tend to incriminate me. 

     MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Rosenthal, according to this transcript of your testimony
                   on the sixth day of January this year, 1961.... you were asked
                   one question that says, `you are also known as Lefty.' 
                   And your answer was, `Yes, sir, it is a baseball nickname.' 
                   Is that correct?

     MR. ROSENTHAL: I respectfully decline to answer the question, as I honestly
                    believe my answer might tend to incriminate me. 
In a testimony to the silence of the Mafia, Lefty exercised his Fifth Amendment right thirty-seven times. However, when matters must be discussed, Mafia members make sure that no one but them will be able to decipher it. They achieve this through the use of extensive coding.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of Mobspeak is its coding. This is what qualifies their language as an antilanguage as defined by Halliday. It is vital in the Mafia that no one understand what they are not intended to. Since virtually everything they engage in is illegal, the ramifications of someone overhearing and comprehending their conversations would be disastrous. Therefore, they have evolved their own vernacular to deal with illicit subjects, such as the aforementioned variations of the verb "to kill." Their oftentimes bizarre syntax, especially that which they employ in phone conversations (rule number one in the mafia: Don't talk about anything on the phone), is evident in this FBI transcription of a phone tap of Henry Hill's line:

           MAZZEI: You know the golf club and the dogs you gave me in return?

           HILL:   Yeah.

           MAZZEI: Can you still do that?     

           HILL:   Same kind of golf club?

           MAZZEI: No.  No golf clubs.  Can you still give me the dogs if 
                   I pay for the golf clubs? 

           HILL:   Yeah.  Sure.

                           (portion of conversation omitted)

           MAZZEI: You front me the shampoo and I'll front you the dog pills...
                   What time tomorrow?

           HILL:   Anytime after twelve.

           MAZZEI: You won't hold my lady friend up?

           HILL:   No.

           MAZZEI: Somebody will just exchange dogs.

Source: WiseGuy

What this actually represents is a drug deal between Henry Hill and his "man in Pittsburgh." This conversation was so abnormal that it was almost admitted as evidence, even though there is no mention of drugs, etc. At the time of the recording, officials had no real idea of what these individual codes meant, except that they referred to contraband. Other eavesdropping efforts would yield more jargon. Hill often used words such as "opals", "stones", "buds", "karats", "OZ", "whole", "quarter", "half", and "one-for-two" in his dealings to guard himself against prosecution (Pileggi, 244). The Mafia knows the letter of the law, and these codes reflect that knowledge. They can not be implicated for discussion of "dog pills" and "golf clubs." In this sense, the Mafia's unique linguistic characteristics have evolved out of a certain necessity. All aspects of their language are the immediate result of their lifestyle.

Mafioso have developed their own specialized language for their own self-contained world. Mafia members seldom deal with anyone outside of The Family.' Therefore, their language reflects its limited contact with standard English, because they never really need use it. Not that most of them are well versed in standardized English. The average education of a Mafia Family member rarely exceeds the fourth grade level. Many have no formal training in English at all. They are assimilated into the life of the Mafia very early, and none ever leave it, barring murder. All ranking members of the Mob must be able to trace their entire family to Italy, and this close tie to their homeland makes their language heavily influenced by Italian. In fact, all officers positions in the Mafia are referred to by their Italian equivalent; capo, Capo di tutti capi, goomba, Don, and concigliere are all Italian terms for offices. Other Italian lexical items include:

     babania: Heroin, as in dealing.

     babbo: A dope, idiot, useless underling.

     Borgata: A crime Family

     comare: A Mafia mistress; "goumada" (slang pronunciation)

     compare: close friend, buddy.  Literally, "godfather" in Italian

     Cosa Nostra: Italian for "this thing of ours," the Mafia

     Omerta: the code of silence and one of the premier vows taken when being
             sworn into the Family.  Violation is punishable by death.

Source: The Mafia Handbook

This Italian that is a functional part of Mobspeak further separates the Mafia from those which are not of the Family. Their specialized language allows Mafia to almost immediately recognize their own, thereby deterring infiltration of their ranks. Here again, Mobspeak reflects the fact that it is and was born out of necessity.

As a rule, members of the Mafioso have horrendous grammar. Subject/verb agreement is normally overlooked in the average goodfella's speech patterns (nothing really exists to refute this claim on paper, since rule number two in the mafia is never write anything down). Mainly this is a reflection of their overall lack of any kind of formal education. In Nicholas Pileggi's WiseGuy, the author makes note of the fact that Henry Hill spoke "fairly grammatically," which came as a surprise to Pileggi, as this was not common of Mafioso. However, this is probably due to the fact that Hill did not enter the Mafia until he was fourteen and had already developed a respectable grasp of standard (non-Mafia) English.

Virtually everything the Mafia does has an impact on its language. Many defining characteristics of Mobspeak spawn from the illegal activities of the organization. They speak in codes due to a requisite for secrecy. The same applies in their unreserved overuse of profanity -- another way of expressing power. Their linguistic characteristics are a reflection of their roguish behavior and lifestyle. Overall, the language of the mafia is unique in that employs Halliday's ideas of an antilanguage in a modern sense.

Butler, Todd. Exploring the Antilanguage of Gangster Rap. The Secol Review V. 19 (Spring 1995): 1-24

Le Vien, Douglas, Jr. and Juliet Papa. The Mafia Handbook. New York: Penguin Books, 1993

Pieggi, Nicholas. Wiseguy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986

Pieggi, Nicholas. Casino. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995