• gunsel •
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A compliant neophyte tramp or hobo who accompanies a more experienced man. 2. (Underworld argot) A thug who carries a gun, usually a bodyguard for a mobster.
Notes: We hope none of our dear readers ever have need for this word, but we had to run it because of its highly improbably origin (see Word History). You can read more about it in our Folk Etymology Collection and, soon, in our Historical Dictionary of American Slang.
In Play: Unless you hang out with mobsters, you will seldom need to use today's word in statements like this: "Racketeers like Izzie Badenov seldom do their own dirty work; Izzie always sends a couple of his gunsels to 'lean on' his victims." Things like this rarely happen: "Morty Skustin was a gunsel for the mob before he enrolled in law school."
Word History: This word began its life as the Yiddish word gendzl "gosling", diminutive of gandz "goose" and originally referred to a young, inexperienced tramp or hobo, someone new to the hobo life. Because of the danger in the hobo community, younger boys often accompanied older, more experienced tramps. In the late 1940s, however, this sense of someone accompanying a person of higher rank was transferred to mobster bodyguards. By analogy with gun, it became gunsel. The original root, gandz, came from German Gans, which shares a source with English goose—another instance of the Fickle N. (We hope Robert Fitzgerald never crosses paths with a gunsel and that he will continue to send us Good Words like today's.)
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