The word mafia originated in Sicily. The Sicilian adjective mafiusu (in Italian: mafioso) roughly translates to mean "swagger," but can also be translated as "boldness, 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 and attractive. The Sicilian word mafie refers to the caves near Trapani and Marsala, which were often used as hiding places for refugees and criminals.
Sicily was once an Islamic emirate, therefore mafia might have Arabic roots. Possible Arabic roots of the word include:
- maʿafī (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.
- mahyāṣ (مهياص) = aggressive boasting, bragging
- marfūḍ (مرفوض) = rejected
- muʿāfā (معافى) = safety, protection
- Maʿāfir (معافر) = the name of an Arab tribe that ruled Palermo
The public's association of the word with the criminal secret society was perhaps inspired by the 1863 play "I mafiusi di la Vicaria" (it) ("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 (it).
The term mafia has become a generic term for any organized criminal network with similar structure, methods, and interests. Giovanni Falcone, the anti-Mafia judge murdered by the Mafia in 1992, however, objected to the conflation of the term "Mafia" with organized crime in general:
While there was a time when people were reluctant to pronounce the word "Mafia" ... nowadays people have gone so far in the opposite direction that it has become an overused term ... I am no longer willing to accept the habit of speaking of the Mafia in descriptive and all-inclusive terms that make it possible to stack up phenomena that are indeed related to the field of organised crime but that have little or nothing in common with the Mafia.
According to Mafia turncoats (pentiti), the real name of the Mafia is "Cosa Nostra" ("Our Thing"). Italian-American mafioso Joseph Valachi testified before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations in 1963 (known as the Valachi hearings). He revealed that American mafiosi referred to their organization by the term cosa nostra ("our thing" or "this thing of ours" or simply "our cause" / "our interest"). At the time, it was understood as a proper name, fostered by the FBI and disseminated by the media. The FBI added the article la to the term, calling it La Cosa Nostra (in Italy, the article la is not used when referring to Cosa Nostra).
In 1984, Mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta revealed to anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone that the term was used by the Sicilian Mafia, as well. Buscetta dismissed the word "mafia" as a mere literary creation. Other defectors such as Antonino Calderone and Salvatore Contorno confirmed the use of Cosa Nostra by members. Mafiosi introduce known members to each other as belonging to cosa nostra ("our thing") or la stessa cosa ("the same thing"), meaning "he is the same thing as you — a mafioso."
The Sicilian Mafia has used other names to describe itself throughout its history, such as "The Honoured Society". Mafiosi are known among themselves as "men of honour" or "men of respect".
Cosa Nostra should not be confused with other mafia-type organisations in Southern Italy, such as the 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, the Camorra in Campania, or the Sacra Corona Unita in Apulia.