some footnotes to recent postings

Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Thu Jan 24 17:30:46 UTC 2002

The HDAS entry may be more useful here than the OED. For
etymology, it speculates that the vowel is probably from
a blend with English _gun_; this speculation would have
come from David Gold, who knows more about the etymologizing
of Yiddish words in English than anyone else.

> 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,

HDAS has a 1910 example for the 'raw youth' sense. It also has
a separate entry for the specific 'catamite' sense, with two clear
pre-1930 cites, one from American Speech.

> 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.

I do think that the 'gunman' sense derives from a misunderstanding
of the word specifically as used in the movie version of TMF.

Jesse Sheidlower

More information about the Ads-l mailing list