World O’ Words: ‘I’ll tell you this once, and then … Omertá’

A weekly look at peculiarities and developments in the language

“Cu é surdu, orbu e taci campa cent’anni ‘mpaci!” *

Got a secret on somebody (maybe even yourself)? And you’re just dying to spill it? Keeping that gossip all bottled up inside is hard on your health. You’re liable to explode.

But if word gets out that you’ve blabbed, you’re dead! You simply must keep it to yourself. You must not tell another soul — except your trusted friend. You call him or her up.

“Listen,” you say. I’ve got something to tell you. But after that, Omertá!”

“Omertá,” your friend agrees.

Omertá, that’s the word of the day. I’ve been lobbying for years to get it incorporated into regular English usage, because it’s one of those words for which there’s no English equivalent. It means that profound silence that reigns in communities controlled by the mafia. It is a code that prohibits any cooperation whatsoever with authorities outside the community, even in the case of an illegal act.

“Even if somebody is convicted of a crime he has not committed, he is supposed to serve the sentence without giving the police any information about the real criminal, even if that criminal has nothing to do with the Mafia. Within Mafia culture, breaking omertà is punishable by death.” (Wikipedia).

This is pretty heavy stuff, and “omertá” loses some of that heaviness in the trans-cultural diffusion of bringing that over to English, where it will mean “really, you gotta promise not to tell anybody after I tell you this, but R–– told me, after swearing me to secrecy …”

After all, if you swear me to secrecy, and then I turn around and tell someone else, after swearing them to secrecy, and then they tell someone, and thus the word gets out that I swore to omertá but blabbed anyway, you’re not going to kill me, right? Right?

Omertá is a powerful thing. But while it’s true that John Law has many ways of getting around omertá, of going undercover, or good-copping-bad-copping it and beating that code of silence, I think that ultimately the power of the secret to worm its way out in the public is the greatest power of all. There are very few secrets which don’t give themselves up eventually. For instance:

There was King Midas, who asked the gods for, and was given, the gift of turning everything he touched into gold. That, of course, became a curse, and he asked the gods to take that curse of a gift away from him. The gods complied, but in punishment gave Midas the ears of an ass, of which he was terribly ashamed.

He hid his ass’s ears under a turban, but since he still needed haircuts, he let his barber in on the secret — swearing his barber to omertá.

The secret drove the barber absolutely barmy. He had to say that secret out loud. So he dug a hole down by the river, and whispered into it “King Midas has the ears of an ass!” He then filled in the hole with mud, and went away feeling much better.

But reeds grew up out of the mud by the river, and when the wind blew through them, the reeds whispered “King Midas has the ears of an ass!” And so everybody knew the king’s secret.

* “He who is deaf, blind, and silent will live a hundred years in peace”