The word gangster has been around since at least 1884, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It combines gang, a 12th-century term that originally referred to the action of walking (hence gangway, or road), and the suffix -ster.
“We always called each other good fellas,” Henry Hill says. “Like you said to somebody ... he's all right. He's a goodfella. He's one of us.”
Goodfella began as the 15th-century goodfellow, basically someone who knew how to have a good time. A hundred years later, the word came to mean “thief,” which would be a convenient segue to the 1964 meaning of a gangster or mafia member. However, the OED says the thief meaning is “obsolete,” so it’s unclear how the underworld sense of goodfella came about.
The original meaning of godfather, a male godparent, is from the 13th century, while it also came to mean “an influential man” around 1830. As for godfather referring to a mafia leader, in a 1997 interview, Godfather author Mario Puzo claims to have invented the term: “It was never used for a criminal figure ... The term didn’t exist before I used it.”
The OED would beg to differ. While the Godfather novel was published in 1969, the OED includes a citation from a 1963 transcript of a government hearing: “Are you the godfather of any other member ‘made’ since then?”
As for why terms like godfather and goodfella began appearing in English print in the early 1960s, that could point to the Apalachin Raid, which occurred on November 14, 1957. A group of mob bosses was holding what they thought was a clandestine meeting in New York State, only to be ambushed by a suspicious state trooper and other law enforcement. After the raid, the existence of the mafia became common knowledge.
The 17th-century meanings of mob refer to a disorderly crowd or a clique or gang. Around 1826, the word came to mean a gang of criminals, especially thieves (a swell mob was a posse of well-dressed pickpockets), and in the late 1920s, meant a gang of violent criminals, a crime organization, and the mafia.
The word mob is a shortening of mobile, meaning the common people. Mobile itself is a shortening of the Latin phrase, mobile vulgus, “the fickle crowd.”
In Sicilian, mafia means boldness or bravado, and evolved to mean a sense of hostility to the law, and then, by the latter half of the 19th century, a Sicilian secret society of criminals. The word first appears in English around 1866, coinciding with the immigration of Sicilians and other Italians to the U.S. in the 1800s.
Another term for the mafia is Cosa Nostra, which translates from Italian as “our thing.”
Where mafia means bravado, omertà means humility.
Omertà, a dialectal alteration of the Italian umilta, or humility, first appeared in English around 1864 and referred to the mafia’s code of honor and loyalty. By the 1970s, the word had also come to mean a code of silence.
7. Black Hand
The Black Hand was a popular name for secret societies back in the day. There was the 19th-century Spanish society of anarchists, an early 20th-century group of military Serbians, and of course the Italian secret society in 1880s America, most likely a precursor to the mafia.
By around 1904, Black Hand had become synonymous with the society's extortion method, which involved a letter marked with a black hand, implying death or bodily harm if the receiver didn't comply with its usually monetary demands.
8. Made Man
The original sense of made man was someone who had it made—in other words, had guaranteed success and happiness. Made man meaning someone who had been officially inducted as a mafia member first appeared in print around 1950, but had probably been in use well before then.
In a 2009 article, Victoria Gotti, sister of mob boss John, describes John’s swearing-in ceremony, which involved reciting a loyalty oath while burning a saint’s picture daubed with his father’s blood.
9. Sleeps With the Fishes
Upon receiving a dead fish wrapped in the bulletproof vest of a trusted enforcer, Godfather henchman Clemenza says, “It's a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” In other words, he's gone to the great cannoli shop in the sky.
While sleeps with the fishes is quintessential Godfather, the phrase has been in use since well before then, according to Grammarphobia. In 1836, an author wrote, “If [the magician] repeated his visit, [the peasants] would send him to sleep with the fishes.”
However, after 1840, usage of the phrase drops to nothing. It’s only in the late 1960s—and after the publication of The Godfather—that the popularity of sleeps with the fishes wakes again.
“You've gotta get up close like this and bada-bing!” Sonny tells Michael in The Godfather. “You blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”
Bada-bing implies something that either happens suddenly or easily and in a way that’s expected. The OED includes many variations in addition to the plain old bada-bing (which was apparently first used in the Godfather film), such as bada-bing-a-bada-bang-a-bada-bing from 1965 and the early 1990s’ bada-bing bada-boom.
Usage of badabing rose steadily from 1980 until about the late 1990s, after which it dropped off. Popularity of the phrase only began to rise again after 1999, the year The Sopranos—and its Bada Bing strip club—debuted.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.