Gossip

By Maeve Maddox

When I came across a reference to a “birthing chair” in a historical novel by Barbara Youree, I wanted to know more about it, so I did a Web search and found this:

Today, the idea of giving birth while sitting upright in a wooden chair may seem torturous.  But long before delivery rooms, stirrups, forceps and foetal monitors, a woman gave birth at home in a chair with the aid of her midwife and other female friends, relatives and neighbours. These women were known as the ‘gossips’, for they spread the word to all the women in the community when another went into labour.

What distracted my attention from the birthing chair was the explanation of the word gossips. The modern definition of “a gossip” is a person who spreads information about other people, but that is a later development of the word gossip. The “gossips” who helped a friend give birth in the old days got their name another way.

The noun gossip comes from Old English godsibb, “godparent.” The element sib means “kinsman, relation by blood.” The word survives in modern English sibling, “each of two or more children of a common parent or parents.” The word sib itself survives in Scottish dialect, as in the proverb, “All Stuarts are not sib,” (i.e., “just because you have the same name as someone famous doesn’t mean that you’re related.”)

Nowadays children who are baptized ordinarily have only two godparents, but in earlier times a child might have several. Joan of Arc, for example, had at least eight. And even in this century, Prince George of Cambridge has been provided with seven.

In time the noun gossip expanded to mean any close friend, man or woman, but especially the women present to help at a birth. Any activity that involves waiting for something to happen is going to call forth plenty of idle talk, so it wasn’t much of a leap for gossip to take on its present meaning.

From the noun comes the verb to gossip, “to tell tales or spread rumors.”

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12 Responses to “Gossip”

  • Keith Crawford

    This was fun, I love the way you can start out researching one thing and end up somewhere else entirely. I wonder if the word gossips deriving from women who assisted in the birth contributed to the idea that women gossip (in the modern sense) more than men? Probably a bit of a stretch that. Also, is there a difference between a gossip and a gossiper or is the second just being phased out by the first?

    Multiple godparents is becoming common again, maybe as we seek for more ways to categorise intimacy as our social networks spread and diversify. It kind of makes the link to the word gossip feel even more appropriate!

  • Keith Crawford

    To avoid any possible misinterpretation, I should clarify: I believe the notion that women gossip more than men is incorrect and deeply sexist.

    I was just wondering if part of the reason it emerged as a gendered term was because of the connection between the development of the word and midwifery.

    An idle thought, and hopeful not one that will cause anyone any offence.

  • venqax

    …the notion that women gossip more than men is incorrect and deeply sexist.
    Well, the notions aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. We could say that the notion women gossip more than men IS correct AND deeply sexist. No reason to pick on the noble practice of midwifery. It probably emerged as a gendered term because of the connection between women</i) and gossiping. I know that’s a fringe speculation LOL.

  • D.A.W.

    Quoting: “Nowadays children who are baptized ordinarily have only two godparents, but in earlier times a child might have several.”

    “baptized ordinarily”?? Is there some other way?
    Else are you making a distiction between being sprinkled and deep-dip baptism?

    In North America, at least, the idea of godparents – a long time ago – was that these were the people who were designated to take care of the children in case both of the parents died young. In colonial America and Canada, that wasn’t too uncommon.
    Have they had the same kind of godparents in colonial Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Spanish colonies, the Portuguese colonies (e.g. Brazil), the Dutch colonies, the French colonies, and the Norse colonies (e.g. Iceland and Greenland)?
    Back then, the more godparents that children had, the better, because godparents had a way of dying off, too.

    In modern times, there is less need for godparents because parents usually live long enough for their children to reach adulthood and take care of themselves.

    In the case of my daughter, my wife and I just wrote into our wills whom we would like to care for her in case something happened to both of us. We asked for permission, too. The people were my cousin and her husband who had one daughter of their own. We figured that in case of a disaster, the two girls could have “sisters”.

    Oh, well, the girls are grown up and mothers themselves, and my cousin has been divorced twice…

  • dragonwielder

    @DAW – I could be wrong, but I’m fairly certain that “ordinarily” was modifying “have”, not “are baptized”. To rephrase the sentence: Baptized children usually have only two godparents. (Maeve?)

    This was an interesting article! I love word history.

  • venqax

    Who is it that can’t understand context, again? Remind me…

  • Maeve

    dragonwielder,
    Yes, “ordinarily have.” Never occurred to me that a reader might think the “ordinarily” referred to “baptized.”

  • venqax

    Ordinarily, it wouldn’t. 🙂

  • D.A.W.

    There is something that is called “Murphy’s Law” and it should be avoided in writing, too. When it is possible for people to read the phrase “baptized ordinarily”, some will, and this possibility should be avoided.

    Things can be “found ordinarily”, “given ordinarily”, “made ordinarily”, “named ordinarily”, “stated ordinarily”, “taken ordinarily”, “used ordinarily”, etc.

    Examples: “That phrase is found ordinarily in Shakespeare and the King James Bible.” (It is up to you to figure out some good phrases.)
    “That tool is used ordinarily in Greenland.”
    D.A.W.

  • D.A.W.

    Venqax does not understand that when I state something, I can find 10 examples and five people to back me up on it. Venqax persists in arguing anyway.

  • venqax

    Are they real people? They don’t seem to be here. It is impossible to completely avoid the potential for a statement to be misunderstood. Choice of word order helps, but it is by no means foolproof. Not Fool proof.

    “That tool is used ordinarily in Greenland” would be better said, “That tool is ordinarily used in Greenland”, if the intended meaning is that in Greenland that tool is commonly used or that tool is commonly used in Greenland and maybe not so much other places. That is the way 9 out of 10 English speakers (at least in the USA) would interpret that statement.

    If the intended message is that Greenland is the place where the tool is used in an ordinary fashion or in the most common manner, a better way of saying it would be, “In Greenland the tool is used in the ordinary way”, or “The tool is used in the ordinary way in Greenland”. Again, almost any native English speaker would receive that message correctly. The word ordinarily by itself usually means “in the most common cases”, or “most of the time”. If the meaning wanted is in a common way, then ordinarily would not ordinarily be the word you wanted to use. Ordinary is an adjective, ordinarily is an adverb. Just because you can use a word in a certain way doesn’t mean you should if you want to communicate clearly.

    “That tool is used ordinarily in Greenland.” is simply muddy, murky, and awkard. It doesn’t communicate any message clearly and sounds like an ESL speaker. I hope a someone here starts to perceive things ordinarily. There you go.

  • Andy Knoedler

    D.A.W. threw me for a loop with this sentence: “In the case of my daughter, my wife and I just wrote into our wills whom we would like to care for her in case something happened to both of us.”

    Having understood that they had “just” written their wills, I was shocked to read this revelation in the next paragraph: “Oh, well, the girls are grown up and mothers themselves, and my cousin has been divorced twice…”

    So they didn’t “just” write this into their wills; it was done years ago! Talk about Murphy’s Law. . . .

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