According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “gossip” is a variation of “god-sib,” short for “god-sibling,” meaning “one who has contracted a spiritual affinity by acting as sponsor at a baptism.” It was used that way in writing in the year 1014, and continued to be commonly used that way until well into the 19th century. A “gossip” was a godparent to a child. A child’s two godparents are “gossips” to each other, and the godparents are “gossips” to the child’s natural parents. These relationships were taken so seriously that there was a good deal of commentary about whether or not “gossips” were permitted to marry each other, as if they were blood relations.
Inevitably, “gossip” also came to mean the talk itself between close friends, but even then it only meant light-minded or trivial talk in a third or fourth sense of the word. When the Abbess in A Comedy of Errorssays to the Duke, “Go to a Gossips’ feast, and joy with me, and he answers, “With all my heart, I’ll Gossip at this feast,” it’s a good thing. He means he’ll be a boon companion and rejoice as a member of the family. Excuse me a minute, now I need to know why boon means what it does in that sentence.
Ah. It’s from Latin bonus, meaning good, the same as “bon” in French.
Shakespeare was the first to use “gossip” as a verb but far from the last. He and others also used “gossiping” as a noun, to mean a christening or a woman’s lying in. Even in the mid-19th century on both sides of the Atlantic, writers (Dickens, Mrs. Trollope, Harriet Beecher Stowe) happily used it as an adjective about cheerful and kind characters or about some literary piece of their own, meaning nothing pejorative, but rather that a “gossiping” essay or letter was intimate and dealt with the human, the temporal, the daily, and not with high art or international diplomacy.
Gossip, in the good sense and its first sense, is absolutely necessary to society and also just about unavoidable. We can’t each independently keep ourselves apprised of the well-being of all the people we care about; we share and pool information, whether at the baptismal font or on Facebook. Gossip in its full range of current meanings, though, is an interesting subject because it now runs the moral gamut from constructive to malignant. We can easily tell the difference between the kinds of gossip out at the ends of the spectrum, benign and affectionate exchanges of information about absent loved ones on one end, versus malicious, uninformed or exploitive retailing of what doesn’t concern us at the other. Especially now that gossip as a commercial commodity routinely rises to the level of criminal invasion of privacy, it’s easy to deplore it while discounting the role gossip plays in all our lives. The death of Princess Diana stands as a horrifying example of how ruthless and damaging They, the professional gossip mongers, can be. But for a novelist the interest lies in the vast slippery multi-shaded realms in the middle, where people like us who mean no harm cross from one area into another simply because they’re enjoying the attention it gets them, or because they find human nature is so interesting. It’s a group that sooner or later includes pretty much all of us, but once an unfair or untrue, or even true but unkind “fact” about someone starts rippling outward in the ponds we all live in, it’s impossible to stop, and impossible to know what crannies it has reached and settled in, and impossible to know what unseen damage it may have done or may do in future.
In Gossip, Avis describes a vision someone reported after a near-death experience. Hovering above the hospital room where her body lay, listening to people cry out and blame and yell orders at each other, “she saw the words themselves as if they had lives of their own, or weight or size. She said that if people understood how powerful words are, they would use them much more carefully.” Gossip is about that power.
© 2012 Beth Gutcheon. Entry originally posted on FSBMedia.