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.
Back 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.”