Why you should care
Because talk is cheap … and can get you killed.
Part of an occasional series on unusual words we wish we had in English.
Beyond the whacking and the racketeering, there was one underlying theme that played out over and over in The Sopranos: Snitches get stitches, a kind of Golden Rule for crime. There were guys playing both ends — the FBI and the Mafia — against the middle. Bozos flipping while other criminals were zipping their lips.
There’s a word in Italian for the expectation that you’ll keep your mouth shut.
Omertà: A code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to authorities
Omertà: the name of Mario Puzo’s final book in the Godfather trilogy and nearly the name of a television show starring Sylvester Stallone. Omertà’s linguistic history is fuzzy. One of the origins, according to NYU professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, is the word “umilita,” which means humility. “It’s about the individual submitting to the group,” Ben-Ghiat says. Better keep quiet if you have any respect for something larger than yourself.
Emanuel Rota tells a different story of its beginnings: The most credible etymology, he says, is “homo,” in the way the word refers to a quintessential manly man. True men, some traditionalists think, don’t blab the way women do. The opposite of omertà in Sicilian is quaquaraquà — a version of blah blah blah. A blabbermouth, someone who talks all the time. “Omertà” entered the Italian dictionary in 1877 as the Mafia perfected its organized, criminal ways. At the time, the Mafia helped landlords police their agricultural estates, Ben-Ghiat says.
Contrary to what one might think from their isolated, bubbled existence, the Mafia is still alive and well. In Italy, the anti-Mafia chief last month told an Italian daily that the Mafia had to be kept at bay, away from reconstruction efforts after an earthquake caused the collapse of a number of buildings. In the U.S., 2011 saw the largest single-day assemblage of Mafiosi defendants in America, according to New York Times journalist Selwyn Raab. “Despite half a century of law enforcement campaigns, New York’s Cosa Nostra (‘Our Thing’) continues to prosper,” he wrote. Perhaps in part because of omertà, no?
What started as a Mafia-specific rule has morphed into the “keep quiet” culture of many organizations in this era of advanced technology with lightning-speed information dissemination. In 2012, one author writing about Wall Street after the 2008 crash could not get a peep out of former employees. “The dictum of omertà is so powerfully reinforced that even after bankers and traders are no longer employed on Wall Street, many still stick to the party line,” William D. Cohan wrote. Politics operates similarly. According to former lawyer and CNN contributor Rachel Sklar, the nondisclosure agreement that Donald Trump’s campaign uses for its volunteers prohibits any criticism of the Republican nominee or his family for the rest of the volunteers’ lifetimes.
But according to omertà, we probably shouldn’t be talking about this.