In honour of Women’s History Month
Given today’s meaning for this word, you might be surprised to learn of the elements that make it up. These days, we use gossip to mean “casual chat, social conversation” or, more negatively, “unconfirmed reports repeated and circulated about somone/ something”. However, it didn’t acquire this meaning until the early 19th century, fairly recently in the history of the word.
To see what the word meant, we shall look at its components, and the context in which it was generally used. It comes to us from Old English, via Middle English, and it is made up of godand sibb. The first part, god, has not changed a lot in meaning, except that it could be used in a more general sense of “religious” or “spiritual”, as well as “divine being”. You may recognise the second element, sibb, in the word “sibling”.
So if we put the two parts together again, what we have is god-sibb; “religious/ spiritual relative”. It referred to a person who had become a relative either by being a baptismal sponsor (a godparent) or by being the person baptised (godchild).
An example of it used with this meaning is in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Wife of Bath, from 1395:
He..hadde laft scole and wente at hom to bord With my gossyb dwellyng in oure toun; God haue hir soule! hir name was Alisoun.
(He had left school and went to live at home. With my godchild living in our town, God rest her soul, her name was Alison.)
So how did the word develop from meaning “spiritual relation” to “idle chatter”? This is not as odd as it might at first appear. The people chosen to be your child’s godparents were generally close friends. In the 14th century, the word started to become associated more with women and childbirth. This was because childbirth was a time when women would gather together to help and support the pregnant woman through labour and giving birth. Of course, labour and birth were fraught with risk and many women died giving birth. At a time like that, who better to offer you support than your close friends and relatives? God-sibs would attend a birth.
Naturally, as with any situation where people get together, there would have been conversation. Women encouraged the labouring woman with stories of their own positive birth experiences, or distracted her with stories of what was going on in the community, to try and take her mind off the pain. This sort of conversation came to be regarded as the talk of god-sibs, and the sense evolved to mean firstly “woman who attends a birth” and gradually “person, especially a woman, who engages in idle talk”, and over time, the things that were said rather than the people themselves became associated with the word.
Thus, it went from being a relative, to a positive meaning of women supporting one another, to a negative meaning of frivolous or even malicious chatter, as it is sometimes used today.