Monday, September 03, 2007

Origin of the term "The Outfit"

Virtually every story about the Family Secrets trial now winding down in Federal Court refers to the local organized crime network as "The Outfit."

At some point recently the name started sounding odd to me -- how did a term normally associated with clothing come to refer to a vicious conglomerate of thugs and killers? Is it a media creation, or something mob guys use in referring to their enterprise?

I put the question to John J. Binder, a professor of finance at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of "The Chicago Outfit" (Arcadia Publishing, 2003). It was a topic he had researched, he said:

"`Outfit' shows up frequently in the literature of the old west to describe groups of men on a ranch or on a cattle drive," he said.

The idea being that, ideally, such a group works together in a coordinated way, much like a full outfit of clothing works together when one is well dressed, Binder said.

The word was used in a similar way in the military at least as early as World War I, Binder said: "Your squad, your unit, your outfit...same difference," he said. And the same idea: "Not a disorganized gaggle of people, but a coordinated outfit," Binder said.

Early bootleggers ran in what the media commonly referred to as "gangs," Binder said. But in Chicago after the end of prohibition, these gangs consolidated and began referring informally to their enterprise as "`our outfit,' lower case o," Binder said.

This evolved into "`The Outfit,' upper-case o," Binder said, and became as something of a code word. It was and remains a distinctly Chicago term for what elsewhere goes by "the mob," "the syndicate," "the arm" (in Buffalo) and various Italianate names.

Yet Binder said his research leads him to suspect that Outfit guys stopped saying "Outfit" in around the early 1960s when the media started using it so much it lost any value it might have had as a code word.

"I you ever hear someone claim to be `in the Outfit' or `close to the Outfit,' he's a wanna-be," Binder said.

Try that on for size.

Thanks to Eric Zorn

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