The gritty argot of the underwoild -- "Cannon" = "Pickpocket" Huh?

I take my lunch at work at about 2:30 a.m., and when I can get away with it, I turn the lunchroom television channel away from ABC’s “World News Now,”* and switch on the Movies! TV channel *(we only have OTA tv where I work).

I enjoy the snippets of the movies I get to see when I do this. I’ve been exposed to some weird science fiction, some charming comedy, some absolute stinkers, and some thrilling noir. It is this last genre which concerns my question today.

A couple of times, I’ve seen parts of Pickup on South Street, in which a pickpocket, played by Richard Widmark, accidentally steals the wrong wallet (it contains microfilm with top-secret government information). The movie is about the government agents’ efforts to keep the microfilm out of the hands of the Commie spies who arranged for Jean Peters to be ferrying it to her no-good boyfriend.

But this isn’t Cafe Society, so my question isn’t about the movie. It’s about the term that the cops and the police informants use to refer to professional pickpockets. “Cannon” is what they call Widmark and his fellows in petty thievery.

Where the hell did this term come from? Any ideas?


*see my other works for my explanation of why television “news” programming should not exist.

Just a guess: most pickpockets work in teams. One to distract the mark, one to pick the pocket, one to receive the wallet and run away with it. Only the best pickpocket would dare to work alone, as a loose cannon.

First you go back to the mid 1800s when gun was an underworld term for a thief. It was almost certainly a clipping of the term gonnif, thief.

So, by the 1920s a “gun” could be a “cannon” in underworld slang.

Cite (out of many) to go along:

How “gunsel” become “catamite” (to put it nicely)–surely the meaning intended by Bogart in The Maltese Falcon at the hapless enforcer–I have no idea.

Other way around. “Gunsel” meant a younger gay man or boy who kepy by an older man. It was hobo slang, dating from 1914 and derives from a German phrase meaning “young goose” (through Yiddish). The definition of “gunman” comes entirely from Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon and its imitators.


In his book ‘‘Stickin’: The Case for Loyalty,’’ James Carville seemed pleased that he had been called ‘‘Clinton’s gunsel’’ by the columnist Richard Cohen. ‘‘I’m sure I am one,’’ the Clinton loyalist and henchman observed in a footnote. ‘‘I just don’t know what it is.’’…

American moviegoers first became familiar with the word when spoken by Humphrey Bogart, playing Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled private detective, Sam Spade, in ‘‘The Maltese Falcon.’’ Bogie looked contemptuously at the young bodyguard played by Elisha Cook Jr. and told Sydney Greenstreet, ‘‘Keep that gunsel away from me.’’

Most readers of Black Mask magazine in 1929, where the story first appeared, and moviegoers in the 1940’s thought that gunsel was a variant of ‘‘gunman.’’ It is not; in a 1965 article, the mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner revealed why Hammett used it.

The editor of Black Mask, Joseph Shaw, was on guard against the use of vulgarisms by his writers. Hammett, eager to slip one by, had a character describe his activity as ‘‘on the gooseberry lay,’’ tramp lingo for ‘‘stealing clothes from clotheslines,’’ its connotation larcenous but not vulgar.

‘‘Shaw wrote Hammett telling him that he was deleting the ‘gooseberry lay’ from the story,’’ Gardner recalled, ‘‘and that Black Mask would never publish anything like that. 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. Actually, gunsel, or gonzel, is a very naughty word with no relation whatever to a bodyguard.’’

The term in tramp slang is derived from the Yiddish gendzl, or ‘‘gosling’’; the young goose symbolized a homosexual boy. An earlier use was defined in a 1933 American Speech as ‘‘Gonzel, Catamite’’ (a corruption of the name of Jupiter’s cupbearer, Ganymede).

‘‘All the writers of the hard-boiled school of realism,’’ noted Gardner, ‘‘started talking about a gunsel as the equivalent of a gunman. . . . The aftereffects of that joke are still seen in American murder stories.’’

William Safire, NYTimes, 6/30/00

NB the “Ganymede” etymology, which sounds brainy and all, but dubious

I can truly say that I learned something new today.

Article from the New Yorker:

From another article on the subject:

An earlier thread indicating a somewhat common metaphor relating effeminate men to birds.

My thought exactly about “Ganymede” being a too-good/clever etymology; it’s just luck that’s “little goose” in Yiddish has “gah…” it.

Did you know that calling someone a faegheleh (homosexual/“little bird”) actually refers to that person’s hidden “Fabian” tendencies?

Excellent examples. False etymologies.