Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. Slang A hoodlum or other criminal, especially one who carries a gun.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. A young man kept for homosexual purposes; a catamite.
  • n. A passive partner in anal intercourse.
  • n. A gun-carrying hoodlum or other criminal.

Etymologies

Perhaps alteration (influenced by gun) of Yiddish gendzl, gosling, diminutive of gandz, goose, from Middle High German gans, from Old High German.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
From Yiddish גענדזל (gendzl, "gosling"). (Wiktionary)
By misunderstanding of the 1929 Maltese Falcon quotation above (which survived in a popular 1941 film adaptation). The novel was originally serialized in a magazine, Black Mask, whose editor refused to allow vulgarities. Hammett used the word gunsel knowing that the editor would likely misunderstand it as relating to gun, and therefore allow it.[2] (Wiktionary)

Examples

  • But he left the word gunsel because Hammett had used it so casually that Shaw took it for granted that the word pertained to a hired gunman.

    The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time

  • Perhaps the editor had never come upon the word gunsel before; perhaps it even flashed across his mind that no such word existed (it is not in desk dictionaries); in any event, it was perfectly natural for the editor, having caught and deleted the supposedly offensive phrase, to let gunsel slip past.

    In The Queens' Parlour

  • Nearly every detective story writer in the business has taken over the word gunsel and used it to mean a gunman.

    In The Queens' Parlour

  • David L. Gold Oakland Gardens, New York You mention [XVII,3] the word gunsel as being a less common, old-fashioned term for ` gunman, 'etc.

    VERBATIM: The Language Quarterly Vol XVIII No 4

  • The first expression, however - gunsel - had a pure and untainted mien; further, the person called a gunsel happened to be, in fact, a gunman; so the editor assumed that gunsel was just a synonym for gunman.

    In The Queens' Parlour

  • Then on top of that dictionary definition, the word 'gunsel' suggested 'Hansel' to me, and the old folk tale mated with the definition and started spawning horrors.

    MIND MELD: Taboo Topics in SF/F Literature

  • The story began with the word 'gunsel', which I discovered in the dictionary.

    MIND MELD: Taboo Topics in SF/F Literature

  • It amuses me that "gunsel" is now used to mean "gun-wielding gangster" by people who clearly don't know its linguistic roots.

    Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed #156 | Comics Should Be Good! @ Comic Book Resources

  • I wonder if this is in any way related to the word "gunsel", which one source defines as a Yiddish word for a catemite and which apparently was hobo slang for a kept boy at the time of the Great Depression.

    languagehat.com: GHASELIG.

  • 'gunsel' only took on its "tough-guy" connotation after Hammett put one over on his producers to slip it into the film of "The Maltese Falcom". before that its only meaning, from everything i've read, was the yiddish one, from 'ganzl'. that is, "kept boy/catamite/younger male lover/etc" - basically identical with the figure of the beloved boy in classical ghazals, muwashshahat, and other arabic and persian poetic forms.

    languagehat.com: GHASELIG.

Wordnik is becoming a not-for-profit! Read our announcement here.

Comments

Log in or sign up to get involved in the conversation. It's quick and easy.

  • I remember reading somewhere that the word primarily, or perhaps only, had meaning no. 1. Then Dashiell Hammett slipped it into one of his stories, knowing full well what it meant, but counting on readers (and editors/censors) to misinterpret as something along the lines of no. 2.

    January 18, 2008

  • 1. a young man kept as a sexual companion.
    2. a hoodlum armed with a handgun

    "Another thing," Spade repeated, glaring ar the boy. "Keep that gunsel away from me while you're making up your mind. I'll kill him."
    The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

    December 3, 2007