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A Brief History of the Word “Goombah”

What You Need to Know

  • From the Napulitano (Neapolitan) word cumpare
  • Could be a racial slur if used by non Italian-Americans
  • Alternate spellings: gumbahcumpàgoomba
  • Means associate or accomplice

Goombah (pronounced “goom-buh”) is a slang term used to describe people of Italian descent. It’s predominantly used in the USA (mostly in NYC’s Little Italy), it has links to the Mafia (which makes it a bit risqué), as well as Italian organized crime syndicates or people generally of Italian-American origin. 

But where did the term Goombah come from? What are its social connotations and is it offensive? Should you be using it? 

And – hey – where have you heard it before? 

If you’re as interested in linguistics and the history of language as we at Culture.org are, come join us as we take a look at the history of the word Goombah.

What Does Goombah Mean?

Goombah is a noun. It’s Italian-American slang for a companion or an associate. It can also be used in reference to a close friend or buddy, or just someone of Italian descent. 

It can also be used to refer to a mentor, advisor, protector – or even a godfather. 

It’s also used to describe someone who works for a criminal organization (usually an Italian-American group or the Mafia).

Context:

“Hey, I know this guy, he’s my goombah.”

In this situation, “goombah” could be referring to a person’s friend, their associate or their mentor. 

It might even refer to a member of their family (usually their cousin). 

If someone was to say: “Hey, I know this guy, he’s a goombah,” it means the man in question isn’t a friend but is either an advisor, a godfather, a man of Italian-American descent, or a member of a criminal organization.

It’s used most frequently in New York City’s Little Italy, and has also been used as an adjective to refer to folk who steal money via unscrupulous means (the Mafia, duh). 

But Is Goombah Derogatory?

This is a good question. 

When Italians or Italian-Americans use the word “goombah,” they’re expressing respect for a friend, an associate, a family member, a fellow gang member or a godfather. In this instance, it isn’t derogatory. In fact, it’s seen more as a warm greeting. 

However, if a non-Italian-American was to use it, the connotations are actually really different. When used by a non-Italian-American, the word goombah is often taken to be an ethnic slur – one that is targeting Italian-Americans and stereotyping them derogatorily as thugs or members, immigrants or members of criminal gangs. 

The lesson here? 

It’s probably best that you don’t use the word Goombah unless you’re of Italian-American descent. 

Unless you wanna get your ass kicked by the godfather.

Or wake up with a horse’s head on your pillow. 

Not just that, but people are sensitive and it’s very easy in today’s world of social media for us to use a term or phrase and get misquoted. Before we know it, people are causing us to draw an entirely different semantic inference than what we intended – and we’re forced to defend ourselves. 

So, before you use the word Goombah, just ask yourself – is your godfather a godfather? Was every guy at your wedding called Tony? 

If not – maybe don’t use the word goombah. Just to be safe. 

Where Did the Word Goombah Come From- History and Etymology

Now for some real linguistic history …

In Southern Italy, the word cumpà is used as a way of addressing someone you’re on familiar terms with. It’s a slang word for “male friend, or buddy.”

As in, “Hey, cumpà!”

You might hear this a lot in Naples (along with “bonanòtte!”) 

Indeed, cumpà is predominantly used in Naples – which is precisely where goombah is thought to originate.

As such, goombah is thought to be an Anglicized version of cumpà, which itself is an apocope oxytone form of cumpari, and which was brought over to New York when the Italians started to migrate there.

As such, the word goombah – when used by Italians or Italian-Americans, at least – is seen as a word of endearment used to refer to a male associate or buddy. 

However, over the years it’s attracted links with the criminal underworld and, when used in a specific context, signifies a criminal or a partner in crime. 

When used in Naples among non-criminals, it’s simply a form of familiar address. 

It’s also worth pointing out that cumpà is a derivative of the medieval Latin word compater, which came to mean “godfather.”

How Did Goombah Become "Popular" in the US?

Goombah isn’t really in wide usage in the US. But it’s popular in NYC’s Little Italy – and it’s obviously popular enough for you to be curious about it. 

The story goes that Southern Italian immigrants arrived on US shores in the 1800s – and brought their slang with them. 

Goombah – as we’ve seen – was already widely used in Naples (and Sicily) and the Italian immigrants who came over to America continued using it to refer to their pals, gang members, godfathers and so on. 

It’s probably when goombah came to the US that it became goombah (and not cumpà, as it was originally). This is because it was anglicised when American ears heard it for the first time.

Cultural Uses

If you’re thinking “you know what, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the word “goombah” somewhere before, you might have heard it on an old Nintendo game that used the word to refer to a bad guy.

You may have also been watching The Sopranos? Here’s a clip.

Pro tip: You’re not Tony Soprano, so it’s best that you don’t use Goombah (unless you’re Italian-American). 

Goombah is just one of them, with others that have made their way out of the mobster underworld and into the mainstream including the likes of Goomah, which means godmother or a female person that takes care of you, as well as Marone, which refers to the Madonna (the Virgin Mary, of course). 

The Sopranos actor Steven R. Schirripa even wrote a book called A Goombah’s Guide to Life. 

Before The Sopranos, goombah was used in the 1969 movie The Godfather, and for many Americans it was probably their first introduction to the word. 

The word has also been used on the video game Mobsters 2 Vendetta in reference to the godfather.

That said, “speaking Soprano” is a phrase derived from years of watching The Sopranos, and there are numerous epic slang words from the popular TV show that have made their way into the American lexicon. 

To Sum Up

We hope you enjoyed reading our article about the history and usage of the word goombah!

As we’ve seen, it has a fairly rich history. It’s used by Italians and Italian-Americans and it’s perfectly okay for them to use in reference to their buddies, their mentors and their godfathers.

However, if you’re not Italian or Italian-American? Probably don’t use it, as it’s mostly used as an ethnic slur by non-Italians. 

If you do use it, just remember that context matters!

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