What’s ‘omerta’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: omerta….

Remember the tale of Harvey Weinstein? I must confess, I’ve lost track about where his latest trial stands. Last I heard he was being indicted on 11 counts of sexual assault in Los Angeles.

Some time ago I recall reading a thoughtful and insightful piece in the Globe & Mail newspaper by John Doyle, headlined, “The Hollywood fable that enabled Weinstein.” And, in addition to some food for thought, Doyle also gave me my word of the week: omerta. Here’s how he used it.

 There is, especially among men and among media, publicists and others on the fringes, a fierce impulse toward denial and there exists a strange omerta based on the notion that the public doesn’t need to know what’s going on.

The word sounded vaguely familiar to me but I couldn’t place it so I looked it up. Turns out omerta refers to a code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to authorities. As the word is related to the mafia, I assumed it would be of Italian origin, and it is, although its roots go back to Latin.

Omerta comes from the Italian umilta, meaning “humility,” referring to the code of submission of individuals to the group interest. This, in turn, comes from Latin humilitas meaning “lowness, small stature; insignificance; baseness, littleness of mind.”

I’m currently — albeit very belatedly — watching season five of The Sopranos (that’s Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini in the photo at the top of this post). You’d think I’d have heard the word there…

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Nov. 8/17.


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