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.”


  1. I still dunno from “chestnut gatherers,” but googling it led me to “sang diggers“: folks who (usually illicitly) go hunting for ginseng root, or “sang.” (Additional data points, though: chestnut gatherers hung out in shacks in the woods with disreputable folk like charcoal burners, and they sang cheerful Andalusian songs.)
    “Little Jesuses” quirks my eyebrow in appreciation; “Mann von Steiss” begs to be used as a pseudonym; and “ghaselig” is a delight. Great stuff!

  2. I’d like to know what’s going on with “little Jesuses”… o.O

  3. Is it possible that “ghaselig” is merely a phonetic spelling of the word “gesellig”, meaning “social, gregarious, convivial” and a bit less, perhaps, of a stretch in meaning for gay than the connection to Persian poetic conceits?

  4. Hmmm… A google search into “Normosexual” leads to a page about adult “admirers” of children. Sounds more like a Victorian word for pedophile than homosexual.
    Of course, there is at least one message board user who has used the word “normosexual” to mean a man whose sex life is “normal”, by which, I assume, he means “with a woman in the missionary position, thinking of England.”

  5. Lorca has a list of Spanish terms for “gay” in one of his poems.
    The US was exporting ginseng (locally “sheng”) before the American Revolution on the China clippers. There’s still a county in Wisconsin which specializes in ginseng. Korean is far prefferred to American, though, and ginseng aficionados apparently are as discriminating as tea-drinkers.
    Normosexual …. I was recently soundly rebuked for describing Lewis Carroll as “kinky”. So I won’t say one word.

  6. My guess on the chestnuts is that it’s a reference to a portion of the male anatomy, and something one would pull out of the fire before the wife comes home.

  7. I haven’t heard Platen referred to as a poetaster. His first collection was called Ghaselen. Poetry (in German) online in the German Projekt Gutenberg:
    I don’t think they’ve stood up well to the passing of time, but they are anthologized.

  8. Édouard: Since the word is clearly German, has a straightforward meaning in German as written, and is used in a context where it clearly refers to a man being described as homosexual, I think it would be more of a stretch to look for some other word it might be a misspelling of.
    zizka: Come on, you can talk here, and besides, Carroll was as kinky as the day is long, even if he didn’t do anything narsty.
    MM: Sorry — I’d never heard of Platen, and since Heine was so contemptuous of his verse, I thought it safe to describe him as such. I should have made allowances for Heine’s animus and my ignorance.

  9. I’m with Gail on the chestnuts. As for ghaselig, through googling I found the following, along the Persian lines Edouard mentioned: “Ghasel, from Persian.In English it gets rendered as ‘ghazal’ a particular form of Urdu/Persian poetry in which the lover is always referred to as a ‘he’. Persians also had a reputation for taking Turkish boys as their ‘cupbearers’ and lovers often openly expressing their love for them using this form of poetry.” …”Ghazal comes from the ‘song of the gazelle.’ Ghasalig would be the adjectival form in German.”

  10. Of course that interpretation of “chestnuts” had occurred to me, but it seems a little blatant for Victorian use. I’m thinking more along Kip’s lines, that guys who went out to the woods “to gather chestnuts” may have been seen as likely to engage in more disreputable activities.
    Beth: What you found sounds like the Wordorigins thread, in which I disputed the “gazelle” connection, which seems on the face of it unlikely and which I don’t find in any etymological dictionaries. The fact that the two words occur in the same triliteral entry in Arabic dictionaries means nothing.

  11. I notice, though, other references saying that “chestnut gatherers” was a term used in France, so the connection with the English slang “nuts” isn’t certain. Maybe it’s simply that to gather chestnuts, you have to bend over to pick them off the ground?

  12. I’m a fervent admirer of Heine’s verse, but the man was pathologically venemous. Don’t take his word for anything (except the state of his own heart.)

  13. That’s OK, I prefer Heine. But if Platen slanged Heine with anti-Semitic remarks and got him thrown out of the country, and Heine replied with anti-homosexual remarks, I don’t think the exchange was on a terribly literary level!

  14. From Timothy d’Arch Smith’s Love in Earnest:
    “The poems of Karl August Georg Max, graf von Platen-Hallermunde (1796-1835), have never been published in England, although an American, perhaps the pseudonymous editor of Men and Boys, published translations between 1914 and 1923 .. The novelist and sociologist Edward Irenaeus Prime Stevenson, who under the name of Xavier Mayne is to be credited with the first American homosexual novel, Imre, a Memorandum (Naples, 1908), planned a translation not only of Platen’s poems but of his voluminous diary. Despite his fluency in German he never accomplished his task and the diaries still await an English translator.”
    I would hazard a guess that the word “ghaselig” may have found its way into English homosexual discourse via Marc-Andre Raffalovich’s Uranisme et unisexualité (1896).

  15. 1896… that’s rather late in the era.

  16. Well, I was told that taking nude pictures of pre-pubic girls was just a hobby. It’s very odd that something could be possible in the Victorian age that isn’t now…. even parents can’t do that any more. I have two nieces (now 9 and 7) who had to be trained not to take off their clothes unexpectedly in public — Carrol would have loved them.
    What made it possible was the belief of the time that the total suppression of desire was not only possible but quite a good thing. So Carrol1, following Whistler and anticipating Mapplethorpe (or at least Mapplethorpe’s legal defense team), could have called his photos things like “Light and shadow #1”.

  17. Quevedo raised coarse abuse to a very high lierary level, but I can’t find him today.

  18. I can’t find him today
    zizka, I don’t know how to tell you this, but… I think he died.

  19. marron Qui se livre à l’exercice illégal d’une profession [!] ou à des pratiqes illicites.
    (Petit Robert)

  20. 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. It’s the term made famous when it apparently snuck by the censors in the movie version of the Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade refers to Wilber as Gutman’s “gunsel”.

  21. No connection. Gunsel was originally Yiddish ganzel, ‘little goose, gosling’ (which is related to English goose).

  22. Gunsel in prison means a homosexual tough guy. (“Gay” doesn’t sound right in a prison context, sorry).

  23. They still use “gunsel” in prison?? Talk about conservatism!

  24. seems to me that there’s a pretty clear reinforcement of the queer meanings of ‘ghazal’ and ‘ganzl’ going on here…
    ‘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.
    these forms carried over into hebrew secular and religious poetry in medieval iberia (Yehuda Halevi, Abraham ibn Ezra, etc), much of which was incorporated into jewish liturgy and so would have been fairly familiar to most yiddish-speakers. so the gazelles of the arabian peninsula become the beloveds in ghazals, and in hebrew versions of the same form, and then the similar sound reinforces the particular kind of faygele (yiddish: “birdie”=”queer man”) that becomes known as a ‘ganzl’ (yiddish: “gosling”=”catamite/etc”). and then some orientalist germans get hold of both ‘ganzl’ and ‘ghazal’ and can’t figure out how to spell the damn things. thus, ‘ghaselig’.

  25. Marco Solander says

    In one of John Menlove Edwards’ climbing stories, Scenery for a Murder, he explains something to a young climber he’s hooked up with for a climb and makes reference to a chestnut with an interesting reflection which seems to indicate it was embarrassing to his new friend.

    “Now follow me, I said; take a chestnut, cover it with sugar. He was a shy fellow and looked quickly around, but I make no difficulty of an incident like that and I carried straight on.”

    Edwards was homosexual and in the story imposes himself on his young acquaintance who later exhausts himself on a climb and dies.

    Anyway, I stumbled in here trying to find the origin of the chestnut slang and thought I’d add this.

  26. Thanks very much, that’s definitely a relevant quote!

  27. I tried to check Heine’s use of ghaselig using the link to Lucca in your post, but it’s dead. If you’d like to replace it, here’s the text at
    In both cases the word is used, it’s a pun on selig “blessed, blissful”, but also “late / deceased” (the brackets in the quotes are mine):
    sich (gha)selig hingibt “happily / blissfully gives himself over”; wenn der (gha)selige Iffland noch lebte “if the late Iffland were still alive”. As is well known, Heine was born Jewish, but I have no idea if he was aware of the slang meanings of gansel or whether there was a Jewish tradition of linking that to ghazal – but even if that was the case, he wouldn’t have expected his goyish German readers to get the connection; but the fashion for oriental literature at the time and for that kind of poems featuring young boys as objects of longing would have been sufficient to make the pun work with his audience.

  28. I greatly appreciate both the link (which I’ve replaced the defunct one with) and the explanation of the puns!

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