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10 Gangster Pieces of Mob Lingo

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Sure, it’s Talk Like a Pirate Day, but wouldn’t you rather talk like a gangster? Here are 10 mafiatastic terms to get you started on the 25th anniversary of the debut of that modern criminal classic, GoodFellas.

1. GANGSTER

“As far back as I can remember,” Henry Hill says. “I always wanted to be a gangster.”

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.

As for the popularity of the word, the use of gangster soared between 1920 and 1941, presumably with the rise of gangsterism during Prohibition.

2. GOODFELLA

“We always called each other good fellas,” Henry 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.

3. GODFATHER

While godfather isn’t part of the GoodFellas lexicon, a roundup of mob slang wouldn’t be complete without it.

The original meaning of the word, a male godparent, is from the 13th century, while around 1830 it also came to mean “an influential man.” 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 were 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.

4. MOB

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.”

5. MAFIA

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.”

6. OMERTÀ

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

“This was a touchy thing,” Henry explains in GoodFellas. “Tommy had killed a 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.

10. BADA-BING

“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 ‘90s’ bada-bing bada-boom.

Usage of badabing rises steadily from 1980 until about the late 1990s, after which it drops off. Popularity of the phrase only begins to rise again after 1999, the year The Sopranos—and its Bada Bing strip club—had its debut.

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Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

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