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shameless pleading





Mahaska / Mahoska

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 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, 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.

26 comments to Mahaska / Mahoska

  • M. Terry

    Dear Word Detective:

    I found your explanation of the word “mahaska” (or “mohashka” as I, who have been a somewhat proficient speaker of Irish Gaelic, prefer to pronounce it) quite interesting, and possibly even true. I, of course, was interested in the meaning of the word because of hearing Sean Connery say it in the movie “The Untouchables,” and indeed suspected it of having an Irish Gaelic origin myself.

    However, I found your superfluous comment concerning your dislike of the movie “The Untouchables,” in which this word occurs, rather annoying, and especially your reason for not liking it. As for myself, I like this movie quite a bit, and think that Kevin Costner was fine in the role, and can only find an explanation of your dislike for the movie in your own comment, as to Kevin Costner being “Mister Warm Vanilla Milkshake” (something I certainly never thought of in relation to this actor, or even of such a thing existing – and see no reason for this interpretation).

    This comment is all-too suggestive to me of the hatred with which so many White People have come to feel towards White People. This is, indeed, a very sad thing, i.e., that so many White People have taken so well to having such a scorn for the very concept of White People, and a hatred for so many individual White People, as well. It is but a further perversion of reality, i.e., that a people should hate themselves, and a perversion that was born in that ever-so perverse era known as “the ‘60s” – and which you, unfortunately, seem to have bought into.

    I may be wrong about my interpretation of your viewpoint, but I see no evidence for it.

  • Tannhauser

    I believe he was referring to Mohaska cannons. As in “why the (hand) cannon”. Just my interpretation. Terry, relax your over sensitivity. You sound rediculous. -T

  • Liam

    Interesting. I happen to be working on a new subtitle file for this film, and I came here researching that very term. the subtitles used to read “Mohaska,” but I’m inclined to change it because I simply cannot find a reference to “Mohaska cannons.” On the fence for tonight. I’ll decide in the morning.

  • Tom B.

    In the 1937 movie “KID GALAHAD” E.G.R. says to the future Kid Galahad when they first meet, “I bet you’re the mahosker with the dames” Clearly meaning having power over women with his looks. The other great word in that film is when E.G.R. calls McGraw a “kiyoodle”, which is a small dog.

  • brians356

    Bear in mind New Yorkers typically pronounce the trailing “a” as “er”, as in “I fell asleep on the sofer”, so “mahosker” is probably just echoic spelling of “mahoska”.

  • I simply like the sound of it and use it for my handle.

  • Jim

    Enjoyed finding the discussion about the Sean Connery movie line, ‘Why the mahaska?’ I had always wondered about that, but I always forgot to try to research it. Anyway, I was also curious about the pronunciations of ‘mahoska(-er)’ and ‘mo thosca.’ Having gotten some linguistics training when I was in the service, you learn that proper syllable stress and pronunciation is real important, if you don’t want to sound like a hayseed. So, is ‘mahoska’ pronounced ‘mah_HAH_skah’ or ‘mah_HOE_skah,’ and is ‘mo thosca’ pronounced ‘mah (or moh)_THAH_skah’ or ‘mah (or moh)_THOH_skah,’ or even ‘mah (or moh)_TAH_skah’ or ‘mah (or moh)_TOH_skah’? Thanks.

  • lenny kelleher

    In my family(Irish/German) Mahoska was just another way of saying whoosits when at a loss for a name.

  • Mark F.

    I’m half Irish, and not once have I ever heard a relative refer to a mahoska. I believe that much more commonly used slang for guns were: gat, pipe, heater and bad news.

  • Bull Migalla

    Hey bub, I was watching the movie Kid Galahad from 1937 with Humphrey Bogart Betty Davis and Edward G Robinson. The letter is throwing a party in his apartment and a bell boy comes in and EG Robinson says “You must be a mahoskas with the ladies huh?” I just thought you guys might find that interesting. Thanks for the post and explanation.

  • Lucas Penick

    I appreciate the explanation, as I have thought about this word since first seeing the film on the big screen in the 80s.

    I agree with other posters here that the complaints about the movie detract from the fascinating explanation.

    One is not supposed to see Costner as a tough guy. It is Connery that is the tough guy, and he trains a bunch of pencil-pushing nerds (Including a tax attorney it seems) to at like tough guys.

    Remember, Costner was not even famous (or barely) when De Palma began considering him during the casting process. He has played a clean-cut kid-gunslinger in Silverado.

    The point is this: Connery and Costner were cast as opposites who learn from each other. If you watch it with an eye to the idea that Connery and DeNiro are the stars of the movie, and Costner is just a fool to make the conflict happen, you may find it much more enjoyable.

    I mean, how many times, and how many ways, do DeNiro and Connery call Costner an idiot in this film?? You should love it!!!

  • Lucas Penick

    *had, not has

  • Purvis

    Great thread. Was making arrangements with a friend to go shooting with my new ccw roscoe and also referred to it as a mahaska. Yes from the movie, a line that always stuck with me after 30 years ‘on the job’ Look that NY term up. Don’t know how the racial thing snuck into the discussion. I may have missed the inference. But anyway, enjoyed the comments.

  • KFF

    Interesting banter about the etymology and spelling of this slang word, mostly spoken, rarely written, but here is the final word. David Mamet, author of the Untouchables screenplay, probably did write it mohaska, rather than any other spelling, for 2 reasons: 1) it fits best with the likely etymological Gaelic mo thosca, and 2) in his 2018 novel Chicago, Mamet has his characters (1 a cop, the other a hoodlum) say mohaska (pp. 109 and 241).

  • Perroloco

    I worked a hotel bar on Long Island, and one time a customer was telling me a neighborhood story, and he referred to the star of the story as “big mahasker on our block.” I assumed he meant big gun. Only time I’d heard the word prior to that film.

  • Honey

    I’m watching ‘KID GALAHAD’ (1937) as I type this and paused it to look up this word.
    Edward G. Robinson refers to Wayne Morris’s character (big strapping bellboy turned boxer) as a “Mahoskus” (pronounced “Muh-husk-uhs”).

    “I’ll bet you’re the Mahoskus with the dames.”

    “Now go on and get those drinks out there….big Mahoskus.”

  • Bobruiski

    The term is a mispronunciation of the Russian word maskirovka which means, alternatively, deception, concealment, camouflage, disinformation. The term maskirovka is widely used in the Russian military and Russian Mafia (often one and the same thing).

  • Rich jacobson

    Great exchange and I thought it was a great movie. Connery carried the entire movie. De Niro portrayed one of the 3 people he has been in every movie he has been in.

    Love the term Mahaska. Was a Cop for 28 years and he played the part perfectly.

  • J.R. Sanders

    From the Dictionary of American Underworld Lingo, published in 1950:
    “Mahoska. 1. Habit-forming drugs. 2. A pistol or revolver. 3.A knife or similar weapon. 4. Anything illicit, or necessarily secret, known only to the parties involved, as stolen goods, combustibles, and counterfeit money.”

    The book gives this example (parenthetical explanations included): “Ditch the mahoska, Squint. The bulls (police) are gonna crash (raid) the joint (place).”

  • Gary

    My original request for the meaning of mahaska stemed from a Salvation Army Retreat named Mahaska located in Franklin County, Missouri, near the town of Bourbon.

  • Steven Davis

    I told my wife once that I thought her sister had a nicer set of Mohaskas than her. … I blacked out after that.

  • Roadfawg

    Stephen Davis:

  • John

    My grandfather was a gold shield detective in NYC, Irish, go figure. Grew up in the heights and “Mahoska” was always a generational slang reference to a hand gun.

  • Thanks for the legwork on this. Big Untouchables fan and always wondered what the etiology of “mohaska” was. Appreciated!

  • Paddy D

    Considering that the varieties and vagueries of the idiom uttered on the bridge by Sean Connery, I am inclined to accept his interpreting of the word. An Irishman interpretation is that it suggests a firearm, piece, pistol, carried with intent more to keep peace and protect our women and children, rather than thuggish intent.

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