Q&A: Let’s talk about “gossip”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, did you hear?

Q: Hey AWC, where do we get gossip from?

A: Well, we’re not sure about you, but Lauren down at the pharmacy always seems to know what’s going on and whose rash hasn’t cleared up. Then there’s barista Bryce – he’s usually good for a scandal or two while frothing the milk…

Q: Frothing is true; he’s cute. Ahem, anyway, but we meant the word “gossip”. Where does it come from? Is the “sip” part related to “spilling the tea”?

A: Not even close. “Gossip” is defined in the Macquarie Dictionary as “idle talk, especially about the affairs of others” – but it didn’t always mean that.

Q: How far back are we going?

A: All the way back to the 1300s. “Gossip” evolved from the Old English “godsibb” – GOD + SIBB, meaning relative (e.g. “sibling”). Effectively, a “gossip” was a godparent or sponsor at your baptism. This was later downgraded to simply ​​“a familiar acquaintance, a friend, neighbour.”

Q: So, a bit like our neighbour Tony who used to visit all the time?

A: Exactly!

Q: It’s so odd, he would always arrive just after my dad had gone to work. Mum didn’t seem to mind though…

A: Um, anyway. As you can see, throughout the Middle Ages, a “gossip” was a valued member of the family. A gossip would often attend a birth. 

Q: Oh, like a midwife?

A: No, not to actually birth the baby – just for moral support. By the way, “midwife” is also as old as the 1300s, with “mid” a form of “with” and “wife” pertaining to any woman – hence, a midwife was someone who was “with the woman” during birth.

Q: So “wife” didn’t mean “married woman” back then?

A: Nope – that didn’t happen until more recently. Words like “midwife” and “old wives tales” (superstitious stories from older women) are remnants of when “wife” was more generic.

Q: Okay, so back to “gossip”. So far, it’s all quite helpful. When did things take a “did you hear the latest?” kind of turn?

A: Fast forward to Shakespearean times – the late 1500s. Now we see a gossip as “anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk”. Clearly there was a lot of waiting around at births, so these gossips needed something else to pass the time.

Q: This would’ve been a good time for a joke about word contractions vs birth contractions.

A: Yes, it would’ve. Oh well.

Q: Anyway, was “gossip” used as a verb yet?

A: Not quite. In fact, it was Willy S himself who pioneered using “gossip” as a verb in his play, All’s Well that Ends Well – referring to how “Cupid gossips”. By the 1620s, it had taken hold. To gossip was “to talk idly about the affairs of others.”

Q: Idle talk. Got it. 

A: Then, around Jane Austen’s time, the 1810s, the meaning of gossip was extended to include “trifling talk” and “groundless rumours”.

Q: Lady Whistledown from the TV show Bridgerton!

A: Exactly! That show is set in exactly the same time period, and plays on society’s appetite for gossip. By the end of that decade, we also saw the arrival of the adjective “gossipy” and it’s been a slippery, gossipy slope ever since.

Q: Fascinating. So, anything else?

A: Well, there are many words associated with gossiping. Probably the main one is “tattle” that originated from stuttering, chattering and babbling. From the 1580s, it meant “to tell tales or secrets”. 

Q: Yes, I’m pretty sure as kids we would say “don’t be a tattle-tale”!

A: That comes from the 1880s. But perhaps our favourite gossip-related word would have to be “quidnunc”.

Q: Quidnunc?

A: Yes! It dates back to the early 1700s and means “gossip-monger, one who is curious to know everything that happens” – from the Latin “quid” (what) and “nunc” (now). So, quite literally, someone asking “what now?” or “what’s the news?” is a quidnunc.

Q: That would be a great word to play in Scrabble.

A: On a triple word score.

Q: So, “gossip” was originally a godparent but over the centuries simply became someone who talked about others, or worse, made up stories and rumours about people.

A: Yep. Things went from The Godfather to Gossip Girl

Q: “I’m gonna make barista Bryce an offer he can’t refuse…”

A: All’s well that ends well.

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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