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"Gay Mafia"? Yes! But Maybe Not How You Think

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The Huffington Post recently reported on comments by Adam Carolla made in a Salon interview: "They've just turned into a mafia and demanding everyone apologize for every joke and retract every statement."

Mafia? Why use this word? What is going on here?

Okay, so clearly mafia is used here to refer to a syndicate that exercises power, a group that meets its objectives using threats and extortion. So, does the gay community meets its objectives (you know, like equal treatment, legal protection) through threats and extortion? Not exactly. In fact, we've seen over and over again how GLAAD and the HRC seem to bend over backwards to work with celebrities and public figures who have said or done something offensive.

I'm a nerd for etymology, though. So when I heard Carolla's comments, my first thought was 'what does mafia really mean? Where does the word come from?

Here is what I found, in a completely non-scientific and non-expert search. Etymology On-line claims that the term as we understand it comes from a Sicilian noun with the meaning 'boldness, bravado', which in turn most likely is a borrowing from Arabic's adjective mahjas defined as 'aggressive, boasting, bragging'.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says that mafia is a back-formation from the adjective mafioso, which it traces back to Sicilian's marfusu (rascal) from Spanish's marfuz (renegade) from Arabic's marfūḍ (outcast, reject).

Henner Hess, in the book Mafia & Mafiosi: Origin, power & myth (NYU Press, 1998) notes the following about the etymology of mafia: "It is first found in a document of 1658, in a list of heretics... The word is used as a nickname after a witch -- Catrina la Licatisa, Nomata ancor Maffia -- and here has the meaning of boldness, ambition and arrogance."

He also points out that 250 years later in the language variety spoken in Palermo: "mafia meant as much as 'bellezza, baldanza, orgoglio, graziostia, perfezione, eccellenza'" (or, in my rough English translations, beauty, boldness, pride, attractiveness, perfection, excellence).

While we might argue against the idea of being part of, as the OED's second definition of mafia states, a "group regarded as exerting a secret and often sinister influence", I think many queer folks might embrace the original meanings of the term. Have we been rejected by society? Yes. Have we learned to stick up for ourselves, displaying a boldness and a bravado? Yes. Might that attitude be seen as aggressive or threatening, even sinister, by those wishing to maintain the status quo or revert back to an earlier time when it was widely acceptable to marginalize and ridicule us? You betcha.

In other words, it seems that mafia/mafioso is a term that pre-dates the crime syndicates we now associate with it. Mafioso, or its forms in various Italian dialects, developed different shades of meaning, ranging from the disparaging to the admiring. Its earliest attestation in print over 350 years ago indicates that it was originally used to label those whom society rejected, including accused witches -- often, mouthy women who refused to limit themselves to their assigned place in society. In that case, I say, "'Gay mafia? Yes!" I am more than happy to declare myself a member.