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1875, from Italian Mafia "Sicilian secret society of criminals" (the prevailing sense outside Sicily), earlier, "spirit of hostility to the law and its ministers," from Italian (Sicilian) mafia "boldness, bravado," probably from Arabic mahjas "aggressive, boasting, bragging." Or perhaps from Old French mafler "to gluttonize, devour." A member is a mafioso (1870), fem. mafiosa, plural mafiosi.
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.
A group prominent in and suspected of controlling some organization, institution, etc: Chernenko was a member of the Brezhnev mafia in the Politburo
[1960s+; fr Italian mafia or maffia, designating the Sicilian secret society supposed to be deeply involved in organized crime both in Italy and the US; the Italian word derives fr Old French mafler, ''to gluttonize, devour,'' perhaps cognate with German maffelen, ''chew'']