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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.


“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.


“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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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.


“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.


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.


“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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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.


It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.


It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.


While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.


It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.


May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.


Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.


Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.


American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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