Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are closed.

Unfortunately, new comments on posts on this site have been suspended because of my illness.

Previously approved comments will remain visible.

I deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your contributions to this site have been invaluable. But I can no longer devote the time necessary to separate good comments from the hundreds of spam comments submitted.

Because Wordpress weirdly doesn't allow me to simply turn off comments en masse, comment boxes will still appear at the foot of posts.



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.

8 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.

  • admin

    Some of my best friends are White People. (Am I really supposed to capitalize that?) I must have missed the plague of white self-hatred you describe. Maybe I don’t watch enough Fox News?

    I have always found Kevin Costner both boring and vaguely annoying. Period.

  • 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.

  • lenny kelleher

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

Leave a Reply to lenny kelleher Cancel reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

(and see each issue
much sooner)

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




New! You have questions? How Come? has the answers!

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!