What Fresh Hell Is This?

January 27, 2010

Cyril Wecht Responds (Some of his best friends are Italians)

In last Sunday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, my co-blogger David DeAngelo had an opinion piece in the Perspectives section. He wrote about the guido/goombah stereotypes of Italian-Americans. You can read it here.

In it, he mentioned Dr. Cyril Wecht's recent use of the word "goombah":
But Dr. Wecht did refer to FBI Agent Bradley Orsini (an Italian-American) as a goombah in a radio interview. He also said that Mr. Orsini was the "goombah" of political rival Stephen Zappala, the Allegheny County district attorney, who also is Italian-American.

One Italian-American man as the goombah of another? We're talking bigtime Mafia references here.

When I first read of this, I was profoundly disappointed that a man of such intelligence and learning as Dr. Wecht would use such a disgraced and ignorant slur. If Dr. Wecht would lower D.A. Zappala and Agent Orsini to the level of Mafia goons, what must he think of the rest of us with vowels at the ends of our names?
In today's P-G, Dr. Wecht responds to David's piece with his own Perspectives column, titled, "I didn't use 'goombah' as a slur: Few people have more connections to Italy or love for Italians"

Aside from his love for Italians (apparently more powerful than most Italians have for each other if you believe the headline), Wecht's argument is as follows:

1) His sample of Italian-Americans do not use/see "goombah" as a slur.

2) Wecht writes, 'The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines goombah as "a companion or associate, especially an older friend who acts as a patron, protector or adviser." This is my reference. I would ask Mr. DeAngelo, please tell me -- aside from your own personal definition -- what is your literary reference?'

3) David is apparently the only Italian-American to think that "goombah" can be used as a slur.

Cyril as an Italian-American myself (OK, an Italian-Ukrainian-Rusyn-German-Irish-American), I have certainly heard the word "goombah" used as a negative.

But, you don't have to take my word or David's word for it (or Stephen Zappala's). Just look at what was written in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on your usage of that word:
Carla Lucente, a professor of modern languages at Duquesne University, said she was surprised that Wecht used the word "goombah."

Lucente said the context makes the use of "goombah" offensive because it implies unethical behavior by Zappala and Orsini. She said the word is slang, not true Italian. Its origin refers to a godparent.

"I'm angry he used that," she said. "It is offensive, especially when we talk so much today about diversity."
But, I'm sure Wecht will say the Trib is against him or that Lucente is just one person -- despite being an actual professor of modern languages -- and that he, Dr. Cyril Wecht, has a "fair command of the English language."

However, dear Cyril, surely someone with such a well known propensity for flair with language would know that different dictionaries can produce different -- or more expanded -- results when giving the meaning of a word.

So, let's look at the definition of "goombah" by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Main Entry: goom·bah
Pronunciation: \ˈgüm-ˌbä\
Function: noun
Etymology: Italian dial. (Campania) cumbà, voc. form of cumbare respected older man, literally, godfather, from Medieval Latin compater — more at compeer
Date: 1968
1 : a close friend or associate —used especially among Italian-American men
2 : a member of a secret chiefly Italian-American crime organization : mafioso; broadly : gangster
3 : a macho Italian-American man
Oh my.

Would you call that a "literary reference"?

Now, as to your final contention that, "I am not hesitant or ashamed to say what I think about someone, especially individuals who have attacked and attempted to destroy me and my family. If I believed Messrs. Zappala and Orsini were Mafioso, I would have stated so. I used goombah to characterize exactly what I (and a respected dictionary) believe it to mean -- a warm friendship, some kind of personal relationship," I have to ask why exactly did you use the word "goombah"? Why didn't you just say "close, personal friend"?

Would you have said "goombah" if you were referring to a relationship between two non Italians? Sorry, but I doubt it. The same way that I doubt that you would think that you could use the word "homie" to describe the relationship between two African-American men and get away without any criticism. Certainly "homie" is mostly used to indicate a close, personal friend, but it's also a word you hear on TV cop shows to describe -- lets play with words -- "urban" (CODE) youth as in "there were a bunch of homies on the corner."

Yes, the same word can have different meanings depending on the context and the person who speaks it. Words can be used as code and as dog whistles.

And, Dr. Wecht, a lot of us heard you whistling loud and clear.


Sherry said...

it's sad. i was in his corner whole heartedly over the mary beth b. issue. still am, but here, this issue, nope.
i want no part of this ongoing thing with zappala- i'm nowhere near qualified and frankly, i haven't been paying that much attention but i know the use of this word in the context it was used was a mob reference. he's way too brilliant a man not to have know what he was saying.
he could have said that he believed it was a group effort against him without using that word. now, the word has overtaken his problem that he was addressing.

btw,my gramma used to use the correct word which starts with a "c" in regard to her cousin mary- whom i never was clear on- she may have only been her best friend or she could have been a cousin so he's right on that but "goombah" that's a no no and it was never ever used.

Bram Reichbaum said...

I was amused how he called out Dayvoe by name about a dozen times during his essay. Like, it's not enough to make his point (and not conceivable that he'd apologize or make any concessions) but he has to throw the other guy around the wrestling ring. Can you imagine Governor Wecht's relationships with the state legislature? He'd be not speaking to 9/10 of them within a year.