some footnotes to recent postings

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jan 24 04:20:45 UTC 2002

At 11:22 AM -0500 1/24/02, George Thompson wrote:
>Dashiell Hammett's use of "Gunsel".  I remember having read many years
>ago that Hammett had bet someone that he would put an indecent word
>into the Maltese Falcon.  A quick check of several Hammett bios doesn't
>entirely confirm this, but William F. Nolan's Hammett: A Life at the
>Edge says: "Strong editorial censorship existed in the popular
>magazines during this period.  ***  Sex was a problem.  Brigid's
>line, "I'm not ashamed to be naked before you" was dropped. . . .  ***
>Hammett's line from Spade "How long have you been off the gooseberry
>lay, son?" was changed to "How long have you been off the lay?" since
>[his editor] was certain Hammett had something gamy in mind.  He was
>mistaken.  A "gooseberry lay" was crook slang for stealing wash form a
>clothesline.  However, [his editor] did not touch the line "Keep that
>gunsel away from me. . . ."  He assumed that the word "gunsel" meant
>gunman.  Actually, it was a homosexual term that meant "kept boy."
>(pp. 93-94)
Interesting story, but I wonder.  The Hammett use of "gunsel" appears
in the OED listing as one of several cites, of which it is not the
first, under the Sense 1 heading 'a (naïve) youth; a tramp's young
companion, male lover; a homosexual youth' rather than the Sense 2
heading of 'an informer, a criminal, a gunman', but the problem is
that these categories are not entirely disjoint, since some criminals
are youths and vice versa.  The fact that the first cite in the OED is

1914 JACKSON & HELLYER Vocab. Criminal Slang 40 Gunshel, current
amongst yeggs chiefly. A boy; a youth; a neophyte of trampdom.

makes one wonder whether it's accurate to say that as of 1930
"actually, it was a homosexual term that meant 'kept boy'".  True,
the kid in The Maltese Falcon referred to above is a gunman, but he's
also a youth; and we've seen that the first sense glossed above
doesn't invariably imply 'kept boy'.  Further, the version in TMF,
published by Knopf in 1930, wasn't the first time Hammett used the
term in print; the OED cite of the line is

1929 D. HAMMETT in Black Mask Nov. 43/1 Keep that gunsel away from me
while you're making up your mind

Assuming this is an earlier version in "a popular magazine" of what
would be published in book form as TMF a year later, it makes one
wonder whether the above story (putting an indecent word into TMF to
win a bet, and assuming it would be read as 'gunman' rather than in
the more general "yegg" use as 'boy, youth, neophyte') is really
accurate.  Still, it's at least possible that Hammett (especially via
the 1941 Huston/Bogart movie version) helped move "gunsel" from OED's
sense 1 to its sense 2.


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