Dances with gats?
Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about the origins of the word “mahaska” as used in the 1987 film “The Untouchables.” The dialog, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), is: “Malone: OK, pal, why the mahaska? Why are you carrying the gun?” Googling turns up zilch on the origins of the word “mahaska” aside from a bit of circular and context-specific observation on about.com that it means “concealed firearm.” What’s the real dope? — Grazi, Troy.
I must admit right off the bat that I never saw the “Untouchables” movie, in part because I couldn’t picture Kevin Costner (Mister Warm Vanilla Milkshake) playing Eliot Ness, a role that, for me, will always belong to the dark and edgy Robert Stack in the early 1960s TV series of the same name. I remember being thrilled as a child when my uncle told me that we were related to Eliot Ness, only later realizing that he meant I was something like a third cousin to Mr. Stack. Better than being tied to the torpid Costner clan, I suppose.
Meanwhile, back at your actual question, I had a similarly unsatisfying time prospecting for information about “mahaska” on the internet. By the way, I don’t often go out of my way to warn folks against websites, but, in my personal opinion, about.com is “about” the biggest waste of time out there. Anyway, there was a Chief Mahaska of the Iowa tribe in the 19th century, and thus “Mahaska” turns up in county names and the like all over the Midwest. But while Chief Mahaska was by all accounts a formidable dude, he has nothing to do with “mahaska” in the sense of “concealed weapon.”
I can say that with such certainty because it turns out that “mahaska” is not really the word we’re looking for. It’s “mahoska” (also “mahosker,” “mahosky,” or just “hoska”) and it’s genuine underworld slang, dating back to at least the 1940s. Interestingly, the IMDB rendition of the Untouchables script contains a typo. David Mamet, the film’s screenwriter, actually spelled it “mahoska.”
First found in print (so far) in 1943 (but probably in use long before that), “mahoska” can mean a wide variety of illicit things: guns, drugs, or anything that must be kept secret. It seems to have been especially popular in New York City, used to mean “heroin,” in the late 20th century. But Jimmy Breslin, journalist, novelist, and indefatigable chronicler of the New York underworld, once noted that “mahosker” can mean “anything that confers power,” including money or a police badge.
It’s always difficult to pin down the exact roots of underworld slang, since by its nature it’s almost as clandestine as the things it describes, it’s passed down orally and it often changes its spelling and usage along the way. In the case of “mahoska,” however, we have a plausible theory that not only matches the sense of the word, but covers the wide range of meanings “mahoska” can have. The Irish phrase “mo thosca” means “my business,” a euphemistic term that conveys the proper secrecy (with a hint of menace) of the usage of “mahoska,” and it seems to be the leading candidate among etymologists as the source of “mahoska.” So “mo thosca” could have been used to mean almost anything that was “private,” i.e., clandestine, from drugs to social associations, and gradually became “mahoska” among non-Irish speakers. This theory rings true to me, at least in part because it parallels the use of “la cosa nostra” (“this thing of ours”) by the Mafia to refer to their organization.