goombah

[ goom-bah ]
/ ˈgum bɑ /

noun Slang.

a companion or associate, especially an older person who mentors or advises; a godfather.
a member of a criminal organization.

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ABOUT THIS WORD

What does goombah mean?

Among Italian-Americans, a goombah is a slang term for a “close friend.” When directed at Italian-Americans, a goombah can be an ethnic slur or a gangster stereotype.

A goombah also refers to a mushroom-shaped enemy in the Super Mario franchise.

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.

Relatedly, goomba are minor antagonists in Nintendo’s Super Mario video games. Goombas are sentient brown mushrooms, easily defeated by jumping on their heads. In Japan, though, where the game was developed, goombas are called kuriboh, a form of the word for “chestnut.”

How is goombah used in real life?

When Italian-Americans use the term among themselves, it signals affection and shared identity. 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.

More examples of goombah:

“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

Note

This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.