What is a Gunsel?

Welcome back to my blog? Today I have Jim Cort talking about gunsels.

Here’s Jim!

A gunsel is a hoodlum who carries a gun: a hit man, a torpedo, a button man. That’s what the word has come to mean, but it didn’t always mean that.

When Joseph Shaw became editor of Black Mask magazine in 1926, he envisioned a tough, uncompromising, more realistic style for the detective stories the magazine published—an American style. He began assembling a stable of writers who could give him what he wanted. Early on he uncovered a gold mine: Dashiell Hammett.

British story paper Thriller 1930 - Public Domain

British story paper Thriller 1930 – Public Domain

Hammett had been a detective himself and knew what he was talking about. His stories were spare, tough, fast-paced and authentic.  But authenticity became a small bone of contention between the two men. Hammett wanted his characters to talk as he knew they really talked. Shaw, a gentleman of the old school, was wary of rank language and removed it wherever it appeared. Hammett tried to slip the occasional offending word or phrase past him, but rarely succeeded.

This brings us to 1929, and the serialization of The Maltese Falcon in Black Mask. Two prominent characters in The Maltese Falcon are Casper Gutman, the overweight leader of the criminal gang, and his baby-faced killer, Wilmer Cook. At one point in the story, Our Hero, Sam Spade, calls Wilmer a gunsel. Shaw saw the word, saw that it contained the word “gun,” and assumed the word meant “gunman” or “killer”, which, in fact is what Wilmer was.

And nowadays that’s what it means.

But in 1929 gunsel meant something quite different. It was a hobo term derived from the Yiddish gonzel, “little goose”. It referred to a teenage boy who traveled with an older man. The implication was that both of them were homosexual. Coming from Spade this would be the vilest of insults.

But Joe Shaw thought it meant “gunman.” Other Black Mask writers adopted the word, and pretty soon everybody thought it meant “gunman”.

And so, of course, it does.

Jim Cort has been writing since anyone can remember. His novel The Lonely Impulse is available from Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/337106

Cindy here again!

Great post, Jim. Fascinating how the meanings of words get changed.

Until next time…

 

Cindy