RARA-AVIS: Wise Guy origins?

Joe Kraus (j-kraus@nwu.edu)
Thu, 04 Feb 1999 07:51:52 -0600 This is just an educated guess about why "wise guys" went from referring to
any mouthy guy who wouldn't talk to the narrower, contemporary sense of a
mafia type. The term always carries with it a notion of someone with power
belittling someone who does not.

I think the change has to do with a changed perspective. To the cops, a
mafia type who won't talk at all is one of those "wise guys" who thinks
he'll be able to outsmart the system. In a kind of cat-and-mouse game,
it's a term an interrogating cop could use to put down a guy whose
short-term self-interest (and maybe long-term) calls for keeping his mouth

As it is, gangsters/racketeers/mobsters/mafiosi/"friends of ours"/LCN
members pick up new names all the time, getting labelled by the outside
world as often as by themselves. I imagine "wise guys" might have started
as a kind of inside joke where some of them referred to each other in the
way cops used the term against them.

Because of its original inside nature, such gangsters could simultaneously
make fun of the cops who used it.

--Joe Kraus

Bill Hagen wrote:

>1. "wise guys" is usually associated with mafia types, espec. since
>Pileggi's book (source of Goodfellas movie). Right so far? But it seems
>to me that hard-boiled novels & movies of the 30s-40s--before mafia
>"awareness"--often used the term for good guys with a mouth, like Marlowe,
>or anyone with a mouth. So how did the term get narrowed to mafia
>gangsters who are not usually portrayed as being that swift with the

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