Where does goombah come from?
The word goombah is an Anglicized version of the Italian phrase cumpà or compare, which means “friend” or “godfather.”
Many Southern Italian pronunciations of this word sound like “goombah” to English speakers. So, when Italian immigrants came to the United States (presumably using cumpà amongst themselves in conversation), some non-Italians began using goombah as a pejorative term to refer to their new Italian-American neighbors. It also began to be used as an insult meaning “stupid person” more generally.
But, by the 1950s, Italian-American men were using goombah as a sign of affection between themselves, as seen in books like Robert Paul Smith’s The Time and the Place (1952), and Perspective (1956).
According to The Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms, the term goombah probably garnered wider attention when it was used by boxer Rocky Graziano in 1955 during TV appearances. It also was used in both the book (1969) and film (1972–90) versions of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, and later in the Italian-American mob-themed HBO drama series The Sopranos (1999–2007).
The fictional representations of Italian-American organized crime/Mafia culture helped transform goombah into a slang term for “thug” or “gangster” among outsiders, despite the term’s affectionate in-group use in Italian-American families and criminal underground cultures.
Goombah are also minor antagonists in Nintendo’s Super Mario video games. Goombas are sentient brown mushrooms, easily defeated by jumping on their heads. Given that the Mario series often employs Italian-American stereotypes (Mario and Luigi are both working class Italian-American plumbers), goombah might be so named because of their low position in the Mushroom Kingdom’s villainous hierarchy: They are pawns of the “godfather,” Bowser. In Japan, though, where the game was developed, gumbos are actually called kuriboh, a form of the word for “chestnut.”
Who uses goombah?
When Italian-Americans use the term goombah amongst themselves, it’s often a sign of affection (e.g., “Giovanni? Yeah, that boy’s my goombah.”). When used by Italian-Americans, goombah usually doesn’t have criminal connotations. It simply refers to a certain cultural background and demeanor that the speakers presumably share. Sopranos actor Steve Schirripa celebrated the term in his 2002 book A Goomba’s Guide to Life.
It’s worth noting that goombahs must be specifically Italian-American. There are no goombahs in Italy.
However, when a non-Italian-American uses the term to refer to criminals, it is considered a racial slur. For example, telling someone that “your restaurant is always filled with goombahs,” would be offensive to all Italian-Americans, whether or not that was the speaker’s intention.
Being a goombah is perceived as totally different from being that other infamous Italian stereotype, a guido. Whereas goombahs are stereotyped as blunt, blue collar, macho types who eat a lot of pasta (and may have the belly to match) and are involved in organized crime, guidos are portrayed as slim, show-off-y “metrosexuals,” who are very concerned with their image.
@realMrBongos Thanks for lunch. You're my goombah.
@funky49, January 2013
Although most actors feel the issue is overblown, even some Italian-American actors, like John Turturro, acknowledge that the gangster goombah stereotype can get tiresome.
Associated Press,. March 2004
In his book, Schirripa shows readers how to spot a goomba, how to be a goomba, how to talk/dress/act like a goomba, and most importantly, how to eat/cook like a goomba.
Tatiana Morales, CBS News, November 2002