Monday, December 29, 2014


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


  1. Celebrity gossip: Good or bad? Discuss.

  2. Well, it's not for me, but I think in as far as it provides fuel for conversation between people who otherwise might not talk, it's a public good. Not sure how good it is for the celebrities though.

  3. I wonder if some non-pandering social scientist sees celebrity gossip as a pale, ominous, atomizing substitute for the good, old-fashioned kind of gossip about neighbors' alcoholism and addiction and sexual peccadilloes,

    Some of James Ellroy's Hollywood stories offer a tempting explanation for celebrity gossip: It gives losers the illusion that they are somehow close to people they can never have sex with. Celebrity gossip looms large in his work.

  4. Kathleen, I got a kick out of it too.

    Peter, I think the thing that separates celebrity gossip is that we really can't do much harm to them even by talking about them in a malicious way. Which is different from maligning neighbors.

    I was interested in looking at a Wikipedia article on gossip to see that one theorist thinks that gossip is worse than blackmail, because the blackmailer at least let's his or her victim buy their way out of the situation.

  5. I like the idea of a theorist of gossip.

    Happy New Year.

  6. And a happy 2015 to you as well, Peter.