Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gunsel has nothing to do with guns: When crime writers become word makers

Gunsel has nothing to do with guns, or at least it didn't until the mistake became so widespread that the word's meaning changed — and a crime writer is responsible.

The word means catamite, a young man kept by a pederast. (It comes from the Yiddish word for gosling.) The story goes that Dashiell Hammett included it in The Maltese Falcon hoping that editor Joseph Shaw, fastidious about "vulgarisms," would be ignorant of its meaning and let it stay in. He did:
“Hammett laid a trap for Shaw. In his next story he included the term gooseberry lay. Shaw pounced on this and rejected it, though it wasn’t a rude term at all but tramps’ slang for stealing washing off clotheslines to sell. But Hammett also included gunsel in the story, which Shaw left in, thinking it meant `gunman.'”
Here's the passage from The Maltese Falcon:
“`Another thing,' Spade repeated, glaring at the boy: ‘Keep that gunsel away from me while you’re making up your mind. I’ll kill him.'”
Knowing the word's real meaning lends a chilling edge to Gutman's treatment of Wilmer.
I have also read that A White Arrest, title of Ken Bruen's first Brant and Roberts novel, acquired a meaning that Bruen invented in the book: an arrest that can reverse a police officer's bad luck and put his career back on track. And I think I've also read that Donald Westlake made up a term and used it so effectively that readers assumed it was established underworld slang.

Who else has done this? What other writers have fooled us into thinking that usages they made up were, in fact, established terms?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Blogger Robert Clear said...

A very interesting post!

It may not be made-up but 'gooseberry lay' is a fantastic term.

I like recycling terms that were established long ago, but which have long since fallen out of use (or even memory). An eighteenth century example that I'm determined to work into my own writing (somehow!):

beau trap: a loose paving stone, under which water has accumulated, waiting to squirt up at the unsuspecting pedestrian.

April 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's wonderful. Learning terms like it gives one all the pleasure of knowing a foreign language without having to make the effort to learn one.

April 13, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

One of my favourite opening lines:

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."

Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers

April 13, 2011  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

And here I was using gunsel in entirely the wrong way and thinking I was bright for doing so.

April 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, eighty years ago I could have argued that you were using it incorrectly, but not now. Thanks to Hammett, the word acquired the additional meaning.

I don't know if he was the person ever to use gunsel for gunman (gun boy really), but I've never seen a suggestion that anyone but him was responsible for the new meaning.

April 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, that ought to be one of everybody's favorite opening lines.

How about combining two such lines to come up with:

"It was a wandering catamite job."

April 13, 2011  
Anonymous Fred Zackel said...

But there's more. In the book The Maltese Falcon ... Gutman's daughter Rhea & Wilmer have a thing for each other. He jumps to defend her honor. Meanwhile, Brigit & Joel shared a boy, remember? OMG!!!

April 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Doesn't Cairo leap at Brigid's throat when the brings that up? Or maybe that's just when she taunts him about that boy in Istanbul.

It's probably a good thing that Hammett lived and wrote before the heyday of subtexts. And forthrightness about sex may be the only are in which the 1931 movie verrsion of The Maltese Falcon excels the Bogart/Astor/Lorre/Cook/Greenstreet/Huston version.

On a related note, I read the lost Hammett story in Strand Magazine today. It's a bit too literary to be prime Hammett. I'm not sure if the magazine says when Hammett wrote the story. Maybe it was before he hit his hard-boiled stride.

April 15, 2011  
Blogger Juri said...

"The big sleep". Chandler famously laughed at Eugene O'Neill who thought it was real criminal slang, while it was only something Chandler had come up with.

April 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Juri, I seem to recall doing some quick and dirty research myself in this matter and finding that O'Neill used the expression in a play that premiered the year The Big Sleep was published. I don't remember if Chandler had used the expression in any of the short stories that he later incorporated into the novel.

April 29, 2011  

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