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shameless pleading

Fugazy redux

Looking for the real fake.

Dear Word Detective: I just ran across your own old query about “fugazy.” In case it hasn’t been cleared up, see the Wikipedia entry, second paragraph. — Thomas.

Golly, has it been ten years already? Time flies when I haven’t a clue. Well, I guess it’s time for one of those “The story so far” things.

fugazy08.pngBack in 1997, I was writing a weekly column called “City Slang” for the New York Daily News, and my editor, a genially deranged specimen named Jack, had frequent opinions about what words I should explore. One day, Jack went to see the movie “Donnie Brasco,” and noticed a scene in which Johnny Depp, playing an undercover FBI agent infiltrating the mob, tells Al Pacino that a diamond Al is trying to fence is “fugazy,” by which Depp’s character means “fake.” I think Jack may actually have left the theater at that point to call and let me know my next column would be about “fugazy.”

Fast forward a few days, and I had seen the movie myself and talked to everyone I know who might know the term, including cops, experts on the Mafia, and people actually “connected” to the mob. No dice. The only “fugazy” anyone knew was Fugazy Continental, a local limousine rental firm famous for its cheesy commercials in the 1970s and 80s (and now its cheesy website at www.contlimo.com). There were, however, several internet sites that claimed the term was actually US GI slang from the Vietnam War and, properly spelled “fugazi,” an acronym for “Fouled Up (actual expletive scrubbed), Got Ambushed, Zipped In (into a body bag), the worst-case result of a bad firefight. There was also, it turned out, a punk band called Fugazi that cited the supposed GI slang term as the inspiration for its name (as reported on the Wikipedia page you mention). But the GI term, even if legitimate slang (several combat vets wrote me to say they’d never heard it), did not match the sense of “phony” the word carried in the Donnie Brasco script. And the earliest use of “fugazi” in print found so far is from 1980, long after Vietnam.

I reported all this and asked for help from my readers, and over the past ten years I have received emails with tidbits of information and possible sources, but no clear path to “fugazy” (or “fugazi”). Many folks suggested it might be related to the Italian “fugace,” meaning “ephemeral,” but the linguistic “form factors” aren’t quite right. On the other hand, it may have been filtered through Sicilian dialect and its form modified in the process. On the third hand (this is giving me a headache), some of the people connected to the film have said that they simply made up the word, meaning that “fugazy” is a fake word for “fake.” But former FBI agent Joe Pistone, the real life “Donnie Brasco” on whose book the film is based, uses “fugazy” five times in his book, so that (and other testimony by Italian-American correspondents from Brooklyn over the years) indicates that it is real mob slang. So, after ten years, the “fugazy” picture is still clear as mud.

My personal hunch is that “fugazy” is a real mob slang term, and that it began as a mocking reference to the Fugazy Continental limousine service and its low-rent “look like a rich guy” ads. A smooth operator who picks up his date in a Fugazy limousine might impress her for an evening, but sooner or later she’ll realize it’s all an act. As someone who was subjected to Fugazy ads for years, I can certainly testify that I, at least, associated the word with “fake” long before “Donnie Brasco.”

13 comments to Fugazy redux

  • RareBird

    The term “fugazed” or “fugazy” started in my circle of friends in Brooklyn in about ’72 or so. It was used in the movie Donnie Brasco by the Al Pacino character.

    There was a TV commercial for “Fugazy Continental” which was delivered at the time by Bob Hope. He called himself “Bob Fugazy Continental Hope” in his pitch for this limo service. A few of the guys started saying “that’s effin’ fugazed” to imply that’s bogus or screwed up or weird or such to anything in general that rated an expression of disapproval or undetermined strangness. If you took a shot at the basketball net on the tree in front of “Baldies” garage and it hit off a branch and went in someone’s yard or on a roof or something, they’d say “that shot was effin’ fugazed–or that fugazy shot”. I never heard it being used outside of our block until Al Pacino said it in Donnie Brasco, so either it’s an extraordinary coincidence or our expression had legs. But it started with Paul Speciale or Anthony Agliano on E. 28th Street in Brooklyn in the early 70′s. To them I was “Big Jim”.

  • words1

    Hi,

    Thanks for your comment. I had to modify it slightly, substituting “effin” for the original form, because many elementary schools send students to this site. Silly, yes, but there it is.

    I had forgotten that Bob Hope appeared in those commercials. I can hear his voice saying that line again.

    I don’t doubt that you guys used that phrase, but you may not have been the only ones, since they were so impossible to ignore.

  • RareBird

    I just am sure we didn’t inherit it because I was there when the phrase was applied thusly by the guys I mentioned in response to the commercial. I’m not saying it’s impossible that someone else didn’t wake up and give the phrase life in the same context, just that there was no time lapse between first introduction of the commercial and the use of the term in my circle–I saw it come into use from one of the two young men I mentioned but which I don’t recall exactly. My money would be on Paul.

  • MT Pockets

    I’ve also heard the word “fugazy” since the 1970s in NYC. Any chance that it is a combination of “f**kin’” and “crazy?” I think not, but that’s what someone just told me.

  • fugazi is a term that is generally used by jewelers to describe a fake piece of jewelry. fugazi or fugazy like many words, it has more than one spelling. it is not a real Italian word instead I believe it is slang. either one is okay for spelling.

  • Jimbo

    I just saw the Donny Brasco movie and was suprised to hear the word “fugazy”. In the 70′s I used to deliver gasoline to the Fugazy Limo garage in Queens. The gas fill was too far from where we could back the gas truck into, so we had to add an extra length of hose to drop the load (which was illegal…and stupid). No legit gas company would deliver there, we were a “fly by night” operation. Thereafter, any time we did something dumb and crazy, it was called a “fugazy”. Don’t know if we started it, but we sure used it a lot back then.

  • Jeff

    My understanding of Fugazy. I grew up in Bergen county NJ and during the late 70′s and early 80′s there was a limo company that did a lot of ads for Fugazy continentals to the airport. I think it was like $19.95 for a limo to the airport. Problem was a lot of people called for a Fugazy Continental and a 12 passenger van with 8 other passengers pulls up in front of your house and you go with them or miss your flight. So a $19.95 luxury limo ride to the airport turns into an expensive bus ride.

    From that time on I heard people refer to scamming someone or ripping them off as Pulling a “Fugazy”

  • EICHACKER

    I always thought that the Fugazy phrase was just like Jeff from Bergen county said. I thought it might have been from cheesy franchise deals that ripped off the drivers. They took the name “Fugazy” and whored it out and the customers got the bus ride for 20 bucks.

  • Fred Wilson

    Spot on! And thank you, thank you, thank you. Validation after all these years.

    I felt the Fugazy Continental connection from the moment I heard Donnie utter the word. After more than a decade of fruitless Internet searches, finally, the mother lode of Lou Fugazy believers!

    Cadillac vs. Lincoln also comes up repeatedly in the movie, leaving no doubt that, to the guys, a Lincoln Continental limo is fugazy.

  • admin

    Hey, Lincoln Town Cars were awesome. Upper East Side, late night ride home to Brooklyn in a blizzard with a Russian driver with a Brahms fixation, doin’ 65 in the slush on the BQE — poifect.

  • admin

    Apparently Fugazy Continental is now calling itself simply “Continental Limousines,” with “Fugazy” missing in action.

  • Sonny Red

    Detective, I think that website is a Fugazy. The REAL Fugazy limo company can be found at http://www.fugazy.com

  • Bill Burke

    12/06/2012

    As a student of Italian I immediately saw a resemblance to the phrase ‘Fu cazzo’, which can be translated to, ‘It was shit’.

    In southern dialects like Napolitan and Siciliano the ‘c’ of cazzo would change to a ‘g’, the final vowel might be dropped in speech, and the separation of the two words would be easily lost.

    Thereby bringing us to ‘fugazz’. Then perhaps the final -y is stuck on as a sort of English diminutive and we get fugazzy or even fugazy.

    Just a thought.

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