Organized crime has a unique lexicon. The American Mafia's stockpile of slang has been building for more than a century and overlaps the collected colloquialisms of American street gangs. Much of the gangland vocabulary has entered our mainstream language. This is a collection of Mafia-related and crime-related slang terms. Skip ahead in the list by clicking on an index letter below. (Note: Because organized crime generally depends on the threat of violence to generate income and on actual violence for member discipline, a good number of underworld terms are synonyms for murder.)
- Action (n.)
- Old-time term for illicit profits. Also sometimes used to refer to the potential for racket income or a money wager.
- Amico nostro (n.)
- Or "a friend of ours." Mafia term used when introducing one inducted Mafia member to another.
- Arm (prop.n.)
- Nickname for the Buffalo-Niagara Falls Mafia family.
- Associate (n.)
- Though the usual sense of this word conveys a sense of belonging, in Mafia-speak an associate is one who works in affiliation with a Mafia organization but is not an official member.
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- Bag Man (n.)
- A person who transports money for racketeers
- Beef (n.)
- A quarrel between underworld individuals or groups. Also hard feelings felt by one Mafioso against another. Beefs are generally brought to Mafia higher-ups for resolution.
- Big earner (n.)
- An individual crime family member or associate who brings a good deal of income to the family. Mafia administrations often ignore rules infractions committed by big earners. Being a big earner as an associate has also been said to relieve the prospective member of the duty of committing a murder to gain admittance to a crime family.
- Biscuit (n.)
- Black Book (n.)
- Nickname for the publicly circulated exclusion lists - generally of racketeers and game-cheats - generated by gaming commissions in Nevada and New Jersey.
- Book (n.)
- A gambling racket ordinarily focused on sporting events. The racket is run by a "bookmaker."
- Books (n.)
- Membership rolls of the Mafia families. At times when Mafia organizations in a region agree that no new members should be added, it is said that "the books are closed." When new member inductions are permitted, "the books are open."
- Boost (v.)
- Borgata (n.)
- Crime family. The basic structural unit of the Mafia society. The borgata has an established hierarchy, a body of members or soldiers, and many associates. Literal translation of the term refers to a neighborhood, and there may have been a difference between a Mafia borgata and a famiglia at one time, but the two words are now synonyms. In some U.S. regions, the term was widely mispronounced as "brugad" (likely an evolution of a Sicilian pronunciation sounding like, "burgad."
- Boss (n.)
- Sometimes referred to as Father, Godfather or Uncle in the old tradition, the boss is the leader of the Mafia Family.
- Break (v.)
- To displine a Mafia family leader by demoting him in rank.
- Bump off (v.)
- Burn (v.)
- Button (n.)
- A soldier in a Mafia family. A member who can be called upon by a family boss to perform an execution.
- Buy (v.)
- Bribe. A police officer or politician who takes money in exchange for allowing crime to continue is "bought."
- Call In (v.)
- The act of ordering - without explanation - a made man to report to his superiors. Mafiosi might be called in so they can be disciplined (murdered). Once the order is received, the made man must report as ordered. So, mafiosi in trouble with superiors will sometimes drop out of touch to avoid receiving the call.
- Capo Dei Capi (n.)
- The leader of all leaders or boss of bosses in the Mafia. The most powerful Mafia boss to whom all others defer. Some know this as the Capo di capi or the Capo di tutti capi. The role was eliminated from the American Mafia following the assassination of capo dei capi Salvatore Maranzano in 1931.
- Capo (n.)
- Originally referred specifically to a Mafia boss but in more recent usage it has become a shortened form of capodecina or caporegime and refers to a lesser leader within a Mafia family, chief of a crime family faction. Also referred to as a captain, skipper or lieutenant.
- Capodecina (n.)
- Designates the leader of at least ten soldiers within a Mafia organization, a crime family lieutenant.
- Caporegime (n.)
- Synonymous with capodecina, but often used to refer to more significant group leaders.
- Carpet (n.)
- A meeting of Mafia leaders held to consider rule violation charges against a member.
- Case (v.)
- Size up criminal possibilities. Plan a robbery. As in "case the joint."
- Chopper (n.)
- Machine gun.
- Clip (v.)
- Kill. Also to harm in some way, as in financially. ("Jimmy clipped me of 5 G's.")
- Combination (prop.n.)
- An organized criminal entity including gangs of various backgrounds. May also apply to Mafia crime families that came about through the merger of other smaller units. Syndicate.
- Commission (n.)
- A ruling representative body serving as the national legislature and supreme court of the Mafia network. Commission members are the leaders of the more powerful Mafia families. Each is also assigned to represent minor families.
- Connected (adj.)
- A description of a Mafia "associate." An individual who has a business relationship with a crime family without being an inducted member.
- Consigliere (n.)
- A translation of this word as Mafia "counselor" has led to a mistaken impression about the position's duties (that the consigliere is the adviser to the crime family boss). The consigliere post actually is intended to serve the family membership, by granting a channel of communication from soldiers to the boss. While an underboss may be a boss's rival within the crime family, the consigliere is commonly a boss's close ally.
- Contract (n.)
- An old-time term referring to an order to murder an individual.
- Cosa Nostra (prop.n.)
- To many, this is the proper name of the Mafia in the United States. In fact, it was an effort by some mob bosses to refer to their shared secret society WITHOUT naming it. The phrase translates to, "our thing." In the hands of the FBI, it became a proper name, "La Cosa Nostra." The FBI's use eventually caused the term to be picked up by journalists, the public and the mafiosi themselves.
- Cosca (n.)
- Translated "gang," this term is typically used to refer to a Mafia organization in Sicily. Equivalent to "borgata."
- Crew (n.)
- A body of soldiers assigned to a capodecina or caporegime. The crew typically meets on a regular basis at the leader's headquarters. The term can also be applied to the group of non-member associates who work in coordination with an inducted Mafia member.
- Crime Family
- A Mafia organization comprised of inducted soldiers reporting through an established hierarchy to a single boss.
- Crumb (n.)
- Old-time term for a member of "legit" society. A working man.
- Do Up (v.)
- Mafia's 19th Century slang for murder. "Go find Benny and do him up."
- Don (n.)
- A traditional term of respect for a male in Romance languages, which has been corrupted in some circles to refer to Mafia bosses.
- Dough (n.)
- Money, especially the ill-gotten variety.
- Drop (n.)
- or drop-off. A prearranged location for disposal of goods. Also a holding location where individuals are screened before being taken to an illicit activity, such as a crap game.
- Earner (n.)
- One who generates income for a Mafia family. Higher levels of income are generated by "big-earners."
- Enforcer (n.)
- Member of a criminal organization who uses violence/murder to achieve the objectives of the boss.
- Family (n.)
- The basic unit of the Mafia society. See "Crime Family" and "Borgata."
- Father (n.)
- Antiquated term for the leader of a Mafia family. See "Boss."
- Featherbedding (n.)
- The practice of assigning more union workers to a project than necessary.
- Feds (n.)
- Federal law enforcement agents. In pre-Prohibition days, Mafia-feared Feds were agents of the Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Postal Inspection Service. During Prohibition, they were agents of the Treasury Department. After Prohibition, the FBI gradually - and reluctantly - turned its attention toward the Mafia.
- Fence (n., v.)
- One who trades in stolen goods. To sell off swag.
- Finger (v.)
- Indicate for a hit man that a certain individual is the target of a murder assignment.
- Fix (n., v.)
- A situation in which law enforcement has been paid to allow criminal activity. A gangster might refer to such a situation by saying, "The fix was in."
- Flip (v.)
- To abandon the principle of "omerta" and begin to cooperate with law enforcement.
- Friend of Ours (n.)
- An introduction in which one Mafia member informs another that a new acquaintance is also a member. It is a means of vouching for the underworld credentials of another person. As opposed to "friend of mine," which, in introduction, means simply what it says.
- Gat (n.)
- A handgun.
- Ghost Payroll (n.)
- Names of non-existent or no-show employees added to a payroll (typically through a corrupt labor union) in order to funnel money to the Mafia.
- Godfather (n.)
- Title typically used out of respect and affection. In a Mafia context (particularly in the movies), it refers to the boss. However, no boss in the modern era has been addressed by that title.
- Goodfella / Good Fellow (n.)
- Reference to a member of an organized crime family. Possibly a regional term, it is known that the term was in use at least among members of the Lucchese and Genovese Crime Families in New York and the DeCavalcante Crime Family in New Jersey. The term was made famous by its use in the title of the 1990 movie, Goodfellas, based on revelations provided by turncoat mob associate Henry Hill. In connection with that movie, the term applied to associates of organized crime families rather than "made"/inducted members.
- Goomba (n.)
- Term of affection and respect. It appears to have developed from the Sicilian pronunciation of "compare," which sounds closer to "goombar."
- Graft (n.)
- A share of underworld racket income collected by corrupt government officials.
- Grease (v.)
- See "buy."
- Heat (n.)
- Intense attention from law enforcement and/or media. A firearm.
- Heater (n.)
- Heavy (adj.)
- Hit (n., v.)
- An assigned murder. To perform an assigned murder.
- Hit the Mattresses (v.)
- Or "go to the mattresses." Engage in an underworld feud. Key members of a family quickly move to inconspicuous safe houses. The phrase probably refers to sleeping on a mattress thrown on the floor.
- Honored Society (prop.n.)
- The Mafia.
- Hot Goods (n.)
- Stolen merchandise.
- Ice (v.)
- Another term for murder. Also refers to a delaying tactic, as in "keep him on ice."
- Joint (n.)
- Older term for prison. Also known as "the can," "the pen," "up the river," "the big house," "stir." A convict in prison might be said to be "away."
- Juice (n.)
- The loansharking racket. The "vig" or profit made on sports bookmaking or loansharking activities.
- Junk (n.)
- Narcotics. A drug trafficker is said to be in the "junk business."
- Knock Off (v.)
- Knock Over (v.)
- Rob. The term probably comes from robberies of small produce or news stands, which could be bumped to spill their contents onto the ground.
- La Cosa Nostra (prop.n.)
- In an effort to make cosa nostra sound more like a proper name, federal agents seem to have been responsible for the addition of the "La." The phrase, literally translated "the our thing," has been interpreted as "this thing of ours."
- Lay Off (v.)
- A method used by bookmakers to protect against the possibility of financially damaging gambling results by placing their own wagers with other gambling books.
- Lay Low (v.)
- Act inconspicuously or stay out of sight.
- LCN (prop.n.)
- Striving for credibility after denying the existence of a nationwide Mafia for decades, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI "discovered" La Cosa Nostra around 1960 and began referring to it with the meaningless abbreviation "LCN."
- Legit (adj.)
- Legal business endeavors. A distinction applied by members of the underworld to the activities of non-criminals.
- Loan Shark (n.)
- A financial racketeer who loans money at usurious interest rates. Loan sharks often arrange payment terms that never reduce the loan principal. Those who fail to make regular payments are disciplined with violence. Also "Shylock."
- Made (adj.)
- Formally inducted into the Mafia through a ceremony. Prospective members are called to a meeting without being given a reason. Through an elaborate ritual, they are then invited to join the Mafia. They are typically told the rules of the society, its history and hierarchy, and the general disciplinary measure for disobedience - death.
- Mark (n.)
- A person or place targeted for criminal activity.
- Marker (n.)
- A notation of a debt. An IOU.
- Meet (n.)
- Men of Honor / Men of Respect (n.)
- An older term referring to Sicilian Mafiosi. The term emphasizes a link between the Mafia and Sicily's displaced old aristocracy.
- Messaggero (n.)
- A relatively recent addition to the Mafia family hierarchy. The job of the messenger is to function as liaison between specific families. Effective messengers can reduce the need for sit-downs and limit the exposure of bosses to law enforcement. New York's Genovese Family was credited with inventing the post in order to coordinate activity with counterparts in Chicago.
- Mickey Mouse Mafia (prop.n.)
- Derogatory nickname of the Los Angeles, CA, Mafia family.
- Muscle (v., n.)
- Intimidate. Also those who function as underworld thugs.
- Muscle In (v.)
- Invade a rival's racket or territory through force.
- Mustache Pete (prop.n.)
- During the Prohibition Era, some old country Mafiosi were referred to with this derisive term. These underworld leaders were considered backward-thinking and out of step with the New World rackets. Some have labeled New York Mafia bosses Salvatore Maranzano and Giuseppe Masseria as "Mustache Petes," though each actually was an innovative underworld organizer.
- Numbers (n.)
- A lottery game that has been a money-maker for American Mafiosi since the U.S. Civil War.
- Off the Record (adj.)
- Description relating to profits retained by a mobster from an illicit business venture, without kicking up a share to his superiors.
- Office (prop.n.)
- Nickname for the New England Mafia.
- Omertà (n.)
- A uniquely Sicilian attitude calling for non-cooperation with government authority and the settlement of disputes through personal means. Omertà typically refers to the Mafia's strict code of silence with regard to underworld affairs.
- On the Arm
- Not paid for. Obtained on credit.
- On the Carpet
- The situation that occurs when a made guy's performance is harshly criticized by his superior.
- On the Lam
- Moving secretly. Indicted mobsters, in an effort to avoid arrest, might go "on the lam," changing their address, moving secretly from place to place.
- On the Pad
- Designation for a law enforcement officer who is paid bribes by the underworld to ignore certain criminal activity.
- On the Spot
- Set up for assassination.
- Open Territory
- An area or racket that is not already claimed by an established crime family.
- Outfit (prop.n.)
- Chicago slang name for the local Mafia family.
- Packing (adj.)
- Armed with a concealed handgun.
- Paper Local (n.)
- A chartered union local that has administrators and voting power but no legitimate membership or reason for existence. Paper locals are known to have played a role in Teamster Union elections.
- Partnership (prop.n.)
- A nickname for the Detroit Mafia family.
- Piece (n.)
- A percentage of profit from illicit business ventures. Also a handgun.
- Piece of Work (n.)
- An assigned murder.
- Pinch (n., v.)
- Points (n.)
- Interest paid on a shylock loan. Also known as "vig" or "shy."
- Pop (v.)
- Protection (n.)
- An extortion racket in which owners of businesses - often illicit businesses - are assessed a tax by a local Mafia group in exchange for assurances that no harm will come to them. Also the money paid by organized criminal groups in bribes to law enforcement.
- Rat (v., n.)
- To provide information to law enforcement about criminal activities of underworld associates. One who provides such information or who appears likely to give in to law enforcement pressure. See "stool pigeon."
- Ride (n.)
- A murder committed during a car trip.
- Roscoe (n.)
- Old-time slang term for a handgun.
- Rub out (v.)
- Score (v.)
- To profit from a criminal endeavor.
- Shake Down (v.)
- Obtain money or other concessions from businesses or individuals by using intimidation or extortion.
- Shylock (n., v.)
- As a noun, it refers to a loan shark. As a verb, it is the lending of money at extraordinarily large interest rates. The term comes from the proper name of a usurious and vengeful money-lender character in Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice. The term is widely regarded as an anti-Semitic slur.
- Show-up Time (n.)
- In union contracts, it is the amount paid to employees for appearing at a work site on days when work is not done.
- Sit-down (n.)
- A meeting, perhaps called to settle a "beef."
- Skim (n., v.)
- The act of siphoning funds from a legitimate business enterprise to an underworld organization. Also, the money withdrawn from a venture - such as casino gambling - before income is calculated for tax purposes.
- Skipper (n.)
- See capo.
- Snitch (n., v.)
- Traitor to the underworld. See "stool pigeon."
- Soldati (n.)
- Soldiers. The lowest rank of formal Mafia membership.
- Standup Guy (n.)
- An individual who observes the principles of omertà even when it brings harm to himself. Also a person who freely acknowledges his own wrongdoing when confronted by a superior.
- Stool Pigeon (n.)
- Older term for traitor to the underworld. One who "flips" and cooperates with law enforcement by providing information about his former criminal partners. Also known as "rat" and "snitch."
- Straight (adj.)
- Older term for uncriminal behavior. A man who gave up crime and took a regular job "went straight."
- Straighten Out (v.)
- Building on the general use of this phrase to refer to an action of fixing something that is disorderly, the underworld has used it to refer to resolving a dispute as well as to bringing into formal Mafia membership someone who has been an associate.
- Swag (n.)
- Stolen goods.
- Table (n.)
- A meeting or sit-down.
- Tail (n., v.)
- A law enforcement officer who is tracking an individual's movement.
- Territory (n.)
- An underworld jurisdiction. While this is generally understood to refer to a geographic area, it actually refers to rackets officially designated as belonging to a family.
- Tommy Gun (n.)
- Nickname for the Thompson submachine gun popular with some Prohibition Era gangsters.
- Underboss (n.)
- Second in command of a famiglia/borgata. The underboss is often selected because he represents a powerful minority wing in the organization. It is often more accurate, therefore, to view an underboss as a rival to a boss rather than as an aide to a boss.
- Vendetta (n.)
- A pledge of personal vengeance on an enemy. The vendetta is a solemn and secret vow.
- Vig (n.)
- Or "vigorish." This represents the racketeer's share of a cash transaction. It can be the percentage of each bet that is retained as income for a bookmaker or the usurious interest charged by a shylock.
- War (n.)
- Violent confrontation between underworld organizations.
- Whack (v.)
- Wire (n.)
- An electronic surveillance device secretly worn inside the clothing of an agent or a cooperating mobster. Also the name of a gambling racket involving the transmission of horse race results or other sporting results (as depicted in the movie "The Sting.")
- Wiseguy (n.)
- This term is often used to refer specifically to a "made" member of a Mafia organization. It came to widespread attention - and incorrect interpretation - as a result of statements made by Lucchese Crime Family associate Henry Hill and the related book, Wiseguy, writted by Nicholas Pileggi. In the context of Hill's original statements, the term "wiseguy" applied to anyone participating in Mafia rackets - inducted members as well as non-member associates. Hill clearly indicated that many "wiseguys" were not "made"/inducted mafiosi.
- Zips (n.)
- Derogatory term for immigrant Sicilian Mafiosi operating within the United States. The Bonanno Family in New York is known to have maintained a working relationship with a crew of Zips.
- Also Zio. The term, translated "uncle," is one of affection and respect for a senior member of the underworld.