What Are Youse Lookin At?
Why would a close-knit and insular organization also develop a language all its own, full of unique and colorful turns of phrase to describe brutal and barbaric actions? There are several reasons. Since what they do for a living is almost always illegal, the Mafia began to employ code words to describe many of their activities. This was designed to fool law enforcement officers that may be listening either within earshot or using sophisticated listening devices.
Warm and Fuzzy Hoodlums?
Perhaps members of the Mafia sometimes feel guilt or pangs of conscience about their unsavory lifestyle. They are known to be the masters of rationalizations and have the ability to put “spins” on their doings and dealings that rival any elected official. Maybe the clever language can psychologically blunt the harsh reality of their misdeeds.
The Italian and Italian-American Mafia are not the only organized crime outfits that have a vernacular all their own. Ethnic gangs from the Chinese triads to the Russian Mafia have words, phrases, and code names to keep outsiders from knowing too much.
Another source of the unique mob slang is rooted in the accents of places where the mobsters came from. New York City, being the main epicenter of Mafia activity for so long, has contributed the most, starting with the stereotypical New York Italian accent. “Youse” instead of “you” or “you all,” “dem” instead of “them,” or “tree” instead of “three” are just a few examples of how accents have become so associated with the mobster mystique.
Mobsters also have a broad sense of humor. They are the ones committing the crimes and inflicting the pain. They are the ones breaking the bones, corrupting the souls, and putting the bodies in “cement shoes.” But many are also natural-born storytellers, embellishing their mishaps, conquests, and everyday struggles to make a buck. For every stoic mobster there is an equally flamboyant over-the-top character, like Bonanno capo Jerry Chili, regularly cited for his jokes, exaggerated mannerisms, and ruthless leadership.
The ironic part of the Mafia developing its own language is that many of the rank-and-file gangsters, especially in the early years of the mob, were barely literate. Even now, it's generally not the students at the top of the class who decide to turn to a life of crime as a viable career choice. To be sure, there are exceptions, but most mobsters have a hard enough time speaking English let alone in code.
How Can I Kill Thee …
There are many ways to kill a person in the Mafia handbook, and even more ways to describe it. Nowadays, with the numerous Mafia movies and the television hit The Sopranos, the secret is out. The general populace and the FBI wiretappers are not fooled by these once-cryptic code words and phrases.
The main phrase, one that has become an everyday part of the American vernacular, is “whacked.” It's not clear where this term originated, but it has become the premier mobspeak term for the general populace. The popularity of the term is related to its prevalence on movies and television shows.
But a victim can also be hit, iced, clipped, offed, burned, rubbed out, or popped. The hit man can break an egg or give his quarry a serious headache. They could be fitted with cement shoes, a cement jacket, or put in a cement coffin. This type of murder is specifically for burials at sea, when the body, sometimes alive and sometimes not, is weighted for deposit in the deep blue, where the incriminating evidence will never be found. Such a victim is said to be sleeping with the fishes.
Putting Out the Word
A contract is put out on the target of a hit. The boss says to “take care of the situation,” or “make him disappear.” Johnny Rivera, a Tampa Mafioso, once complained that public killings were bringing too much heat on the mob. They started to “make people disappear” and covered them with lye to make sure the body decomposed quickly. A more intimate way to order a hit is to publicly give the person the kiss of death. This means that his days are numbered. That person is now a goner.
If a Russian Mafioso goes into a politician's office and offers him silver or lead, the bureaucrat is likely to opt for the silver. This is a slang expression that offers the man the choice of a bribe or a bullet in the head.
The hit man may have already been told to get a place ready, meaning to find a good location to dispose of the body. That means he is going, as in “going, going, gone.” The victim will then be taken for a ride. Or perhaps go out for an airing.
Maybe he will get five times thirty-eight, which is five bullets in the head with a .38-caliber revolver, or maybe be on the receiving end of a Little Joe if he failed to pay a gambling debt. A Little Joe is four shots in the head in two rows of two bullet holes. Neatness counts. He could also receive the Italian rope trick. That is strangulation. Or maybe a Sicilian necktie, which means being garroted with piano wire. On very rare occasions, the person may be given a pass, meaning his life has been spared.
A Couple More
An ice pick kill means what it sounds like — an ice pick though the ear and into the brain. One thing you never want to hear a Mafioso say is the word buckwheats. He is not referring to the beloved tyke from the Little Rascals and Our Gang comedies. It is a slang expression for an especially grisly murder wherein the victim is mutilated and tortured for an extended period of time before being put out of his misery.