That question has come up again and again since I referred to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as a “tasteless gumbah” after his crude chin-flip gesture earlier this week (see wordless italian with Nino Scalia – with uppa dates, March 28, 2006). Here’s what I had to say in response to Evan Schaeffer of Legal Underground (with a few additons):
(by Peter Smith/Boston Herald)
Evan Schaeffer wasn’t sure this morning what a “gumbah” is, and I left the following explanation at his Legal Underground:
Evan, I should have used the more “popular” spelling of “gumbah”, which is “goombah.” I’ve corrected the word in the posting at my website to avoid this confusion. Here’s how The American Heritage Dictionary defines it:
Goombah: n. Slang A companion or associate, especially an older friend who acts as a patron, protector, or adviser. Etymology: Probably alteration of Italian compare, godfather, from Medieval Latin compater.
Here’s what Wikipedia says on the topic Goombah:
Goombah (sometimes Goomba) is a slang term regional to the New York area used to describe an Italian-American. It can be mildly derogatory, but not on the same level as dago, guinea or wop.
Steve Schirripa, who became famous playing Bobby Baccilieri on the HBO TV series The Sopranos, introduced the term to a national audience by publishing a series of books starting with A Goomba’s Guide to Life (ISBN 1400046394).
Goombah is a dialectical distortion of the Italian word: Compare.
At About.com, a section on Soprano-Speak explains the transliteration issue with Southern-Italian words such as “goombah”, “agita”, and “skeevy”: “All of them derive from southern Italian dialect, which tends to make the ‘c’ into a ‘g’, and vice versa. Likewise, ‘p’ tends to become a ‘b’ and “‘d’ transmutes into a “‘t’ sound, and dropping the last letter is very Neapolitan. So goombah linguistically mutates from compare, agita, which means ‘acid indigestion,’ originally was spelled acidità, and skeevy comes from schifare, to disgust.”
In his book A Goomba’s Guide to Life, the “Sopranos” Steven Schirripa explains just who or what a goombah is — page 3 et seq (in the chapter “Goomba 101″). Searching the book at Amazon.com will get you the flavor. (Or, buy it used from 43 cents) Schirripa goes into great detail, but stresses that a goombah is “a special kind of Italian-American hybrid. He’s not old country Italian. There are no goombas in other countries, even Italy.” He’s not a gangster, but probably knows a few wise guys. He’s very proud to be Italian-American and to be a goombah, despite the somewhat negative aspects of the stereotype. A goombah may look like a moron, but some — like Schirripa — can even read books and eschew wife-beating. He surely likes his food and likes to mangle both the Italian and English language. (If you’re looking for one, they are most often seen in Northeastern USA. However, when near Vallejo, CA, check out Gumbah’s Italian Beef.)
Like many words, the context is important in deciding whether “goombah” is being used in a respectful-affectionate or derogatory manner. Your editor grew up among people who called close, longtime family friends goombahs — the kind of people you would want to be the godparent at the Baptism, or sponsor at the Confirmation, of your child. I always thought of its source, the Italian word “compare“, as meaning a person “with my father”: someone who has been a part of a close circle of one’s parents’ and grandparents’ friends for a long time.
As the word has spread into the wider American vocabulary, its meaning must be discerned from its context.
And, how do you spell that word? There may never be a definitive spelling of “gumbah.” I’ve used the spelling “goombah” at times to emphasize that the “u”, since it comes from a Romance Language, sounds like the “oo” in goo and not the short “u” in gum. As the word comes from a people who are (in)famous for re-arranging and mutilating the sounds of the (northern) Mother Italian tongue, we can’t expect an agreement from their offspring on how to spell their alterations and transliterations here in the land of the free.
update (April 27, 2006): There is a very good discussion of the meaning of “gumbah” at The Maven’s Word of the Day (April 4, 1997). Maven says there are three basic “senses” of the term:
. . . The earliest sense found in English is ‘a friend or associate’. This is first found in the mid 1950s, and seems to have been popularized by Rocky Graziano . .
The second, and most familiar, sense is ‘a mafia boss; a mafioso’, or broadly ‘any organized crime figure’. The first known use of this sense is in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather, the origin, of course, of the movie: [Hollywood producer Jack Woltz tells Ed Hagen:] “I don’t care how many guinea Mafia goombahs come out of the woodwork.”
Finally, the English-only sense is ‘a stupid person’, first found in the 1950s but not common until the 1980s. This is presumably based on stereotyped portrayals of low-level mafiosi as ignorant, loutish types.
afterthought: What does the word gumbah have in common with the word gossip? A lot. See our post “good gossip bad gossip” (Nov. 7, 2007).
follow-up (May 4, 2008): While exploring a Google link to this page today, I discovered yet another meaning for the word gumbah. It’s in the entry from the 11th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (pub. 1911) for NIAM-NIAM (Zandeh, A-Zandeh), “a people of Central Africa, of mixed Negroid descent.” In a discussion of some of the difficulties in studying the Zendeh language, we are told (emphasis added):
“There is also the same dearth of abstract terms, which renders the translation of Scripture into the Negro tongues such a difficult task. Compare gumbah, an expression for the Deity, really meaning lightning,’ with the Chinyanja chuuta=thunder=God (?) and the Zulu Unkulunkulu= great-grandfather, also adopted by the missionaries as the nearest equivalent for the Deity in that language.”