Saturday, February 11, 2012


The same language myths seem to be recycled several times a year via email; I call them verbal vampires. Showing up in my mailbox for the umpteenth time is the definitive explanation for the word gossip.

A British earl/duke/lord/king/queen (depending on the version in front of you) was worried about public opinion. In a foreshadowing of Homeland Security, he or she instructed hordes of underlings to visit local pubs and listen to what patrons were saying. “Go sip a pint or two and report to me,” was the instruction. Of course, go sip transmuted into gossip over time. Of course it did.

The reality is strange enough. The original gossip (godsibb) was a baptismal sponsor, a godparent. It was based on God and Sibb, related to sibling. It appeared in print in 1014.

By 1390, it had broadened to include a close acquaintance or friend. It then narrowed (1600) to mean female friends who might be present as attendants when a woman was giving birth. The implication was that idle chatter would take the birthing mother’s mind off the pain. By the 19th century, it had settled into idle talk, social chatter, and rumors shared by men and women.

The word is flexible enough to be both positive and negative. A gossip-monger is an abomination, but a gossip column is a welcome read.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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