7 thoughts on “Word Follies of 1914

  1. Pitch313

    Gunsel now also means gun-using criminal, thanks to Dashiell Hammett, who seems to have used the word in order to slip a reference to homosexuality past one of his editors. Hammett figured that the editor would take the “gun” in gunsel to be a firearm.

    Hammett was correct. The word got by the editor. And it took on a new meaning. Mystery fans aren’t getting it “wrong,” they’re just getting it without Yiddish. (As, honestly, I did. I can’t recall an occasion when I would have ever said the word that did not refer to firearm wielding characters in mysteries. And I grew up where there essentially was no Yiddish-speaking community from which I met have picked up the term in its original meaning.)

  2. Nairn

    Gunsel had a slightly different meaning in the so-called “Old West”. In cowboy terms, it meant
    GUNSEL: A person with limited knowledge of livestock and cowboy ways. Usually used as a derogatory term.

    (Amazing the things one learns listening to cowboy poetry and Ian Tyson songs. Cf. specifically, the song “Bill Kane” on the Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories CD, 2008.)

  3. Nairn, interesting comment, but there is a chronological issue.

    If the blogger is right and the first written occurrence of “gunsel” is from 1914, how do we know what they said in the “Old West,” which I would define as lasting from the Civil War to perhaps 1900?

  4. Pitch313

    I wouldn’t have figured on a Yiddish term like “gunsel” being used in cowboy slang from the Old West, which I also tend to end at 1900. But Old West culture probably didn’t give way to more modern ways until after W W I in some locales. So even if 1914 is the date of the word’s dictionary appearance, it could have entered cowboy slang years earlier.

  5. Nairn

    Pitch 313’s comment makes sense. A lot of people traveled to the western US over early and late years, and their dialects and slang with them. However, I went back to “Bill Kane”, and it seems that the events of the song are taking place in the 1900’s. It’s a story about one of the big ranches, The Spanish. The line is, “Bill Kane worked the rodear with them gunsel crews. How we pulled it off I would never understand.”
    Neat discussion!

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