[mah-fee-uh, maf-ee-uh]
a hierarchically structured secret organization allegedly engaged in smuggling, racketeering, trafficking in narcotics, and other criminal activities in the U.S., Italy, and elsewhere.
(lowercase) a popular spirit of hostility to legal restraint and to the law, often manifesting itself in criminal acts.
a 19th-century secret society, similar to the Camorra in Naples, that acted in this spirit.
(often lowercase) any small powerful or influential group in an organization or field; clique.
Also, Maffia.

1870–75; < Italian < Sicilian: orig., elegance, bravura, courage; of obscure origin; the word's history prior to the 19th century is unknown, though many fictitious ideas have circulated regarding its age, source, etc., due to the organization's modern notoriety Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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World English Dictionary
Mafia or Maffia (ˈmæfɪə)
1.  the Mafia an international secret organization founded in Sicily, probably in opposition to tyranny. It developed into a criminal organization and in the late 19th century was carried to the US by Italian immigrants
2.  Black Hand Camorra See also Cosa Nostra any group considered to resemble the Mafia
[C19: from Sicilian dialect of Italian, literally hostility to the law, boldness, perhaps from Arabic mahyah bragging]
Maffia or Maffia
[C19: from Sicilian dialect of Italian, literally hostility to the law, boldness, perhaps from Arabic mahyah bragging]

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
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Word Origin & History

1875, from It. Mafia "Sicilian secret society of criminals" (the prevailing sense outside Sicily), earlier, "spirit of hostility to the law and its ministers," from It. (Sicilian) mafia "boldness, bravado," probably from Arabic mahjas "aggressive, boasting, bragging." Or perhaps from O.Fr. mafler "to
gluttonize, devour."
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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American Heritage
Cultural Dictionary
Mafia [(mah-fee-uh)]

A criminal organization that originated in Sicily and was brought to the United States by Italian immigrants in the late nineteenth century. The Mafia is also called the Syndicate, the Mob, and the Cosa Nostra (Our Thing). The Mafia built its power through extortion (forcing tradesmen and shopkeepers to buy Mafia protection against destruction) and by dominating the bootlegging industry (the illegal production and distribution of liquor) during Prohibition. Members of the Mafia often lead outwardly respectable lives and maintain a variety of legitimate businesses as a front, or cover, for their criminal activities, which include extortion, gambling, and narcotics distribution.

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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