Last Sunday’s NY Times Book Review had a rave review by Adam Goodheart (appropriate name) of Graham Robb’s Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century. The sentence that leaped out at me was:
The top-hatted and whiskered worthies of Victoria’s reign had, it turns out, as rich a vocabulary for describing gays and lesbians as we do, ranging from street slang to medical jargon: margeries, mollies, ganymedes, chestnut-gatherers, ”little Jesuses,” inverts, unisexuals, androphiles, normosexuals, parisexuals, ghaseligs, Uranians.
I was at least vaguely familiar with about half of these, and some of the rest seemed fairly transparent (though if anyone knows what’s going on with “normosexual” and “chestnut-gatherer” I would be glad to hear it). What particularly struck me was the word “ghaselig”; not only had I never seen it, I had no idea how to pronounce it.
None of my reference books had it, so I googled, getting an online text of Heine’s Die Bäder von Lucca (The Baths of Lucca) in which the word seemed to be used in a pejorative sense. Perusing the page I discovered that the word Ghasel (modern German Gasel ‘ghazal’) and its derivatives (Ghaselendichter, Ghaselchen) were omnipresent in an extended putdown of a poetaster called Count Platen, involving pointed imputations of homosexuality:
In der Tat, er ist mehr ein Mann von Steiß als ein Mann von Kopf, der Name Mann überhaupt paßt nicht für ihn, seine Liebe hat einen passiv pythagoreischen Charakter, er ist in seinen Gedichten ein Pathikos, er ist ein Weib, und zwar ein Weib, das sich an gleich Weibischem ergötzt, er ist gleichsam eine männliche Tribade. (In fact, he is more a man of the buttocks than a man of the head, the name ‘man’ doesn’t suit him at all, his love has a passive Pythagorean character, he is a pathic in his verses, he is a woman, and indeed a woman who takes delight in what is equally womanish, he is so to speak a male lesbian.)
What had ghazals, poems in a Persian verse form popular in early-nineteenth-century Germany, to do with all this? Well, in a ghazal, the love-object is traditionally referred to as masculine. I have no idea who besides Heine used the adjective ghaselig, or how it wound up in a list of English terminology, but at least my mystery was solved: it’s pronounced ga-ZELL-ik. And if anyone is curious as to why Heine was so unpleasant about Count von Platen, it’s all laid out in this page on Heine, which I have summarized in a Wordorigins thread. (Even briefer summary: Heine was a liberal; Platen was a reactionary who got him censored and eventually driven into exile.) Heine made the memorable remark that “Count Platen might be a poet, if he had lived in another time and if, besides that, he were also somebody other than himself.”