Last Monday, which seems a long time ago now, given Christmas and everything attendant on it, I was at the Penny University again, and Paul Lee, who co-leads the discussion there, happened to say in passing that he was fascinated by words that had lost their original coinage. As an example, he mentioned the word "gossip". He said that originally it had come for a word for godparent. Not that I didn't believe him, but I decided to look it up...
Yes, indeed. The word was godsibb in Old English, and meant something like a sponsor or godparent, -sibb being related to our "sibling", as it expressed kinship or relationship and had to do with happiness, friendship, love and peace. Pretty great, in other words. Time went on, and by the time Middle English took it up (as gossib) mid-fourteenth century, the meaning had expanded to include any familiar acquaintance, especially, the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, "women friends invited to attend a birth". Do you see where this is going?
|"Baptism Window" in Memphis, Tennessee|
By the 1560s, it meant anyone engaged in "familiar or idle talk". Although gossip started as a noun referring to a person, the verb "to gossip" eventually followed it in the 1620s. And by 1811, we have our current understanding of gossip as "trifling talk, groundless rumor".
Yep, that's women for you.
A friend of mine mentioned some while ago that she thought gossip was a social good not a social ill. It's been awhile since I talked with her about it, but I think the sense is that it's a kind of social lubricant, something that binds a community together. I wasn't so sure about it at the time, but put it another way. What is worse than being interested in everybody's business?
Not being interested in everybody's business.
|Gossiping women, apparently surrounded by devils. Little Melton, Norfolk|