As you know, I am NOT one to gossip BUT…
Next time you want someone to listen to you – really listen – try opening with this sentence. They’ll look up from their smartphones. Pupils will enlarge. Eyebrows will raise. They’ll lean in.
Your vocabulary will suddenly change too. You’ll deviate daringly from the pedestrian prosaics of certainty and facts, into the poetry of gossip. You’ll use exciting caveats like apparently and engaging rhetorical questions like can you believe it? and you’ll never guess what? You already know they’ll never guess. That’s the fun of the linguistic tease in which you invite your listener to partake. You’ll veer into raconteur mode, withholding information until absolutely necessary, playfully crescendoing to a grand reveal. Dialogue-mimicking will quicken your pace into a he-said-and-then-she-said cadence.
It has a terrible reputation, but perhaps we’ve been approaching it from the wrong angle. From where I’m standing, gossip is a sexy word.
It’s the word that warns you that a new set of linguistic rules are about to be obeyed. It’s the word of forbidden sex, salacious scandal, gratuitous detail, reward, revelation and – dare I say it – fun. It’s dishing the dirt or it’s juicy – sitting within an earthy vernacular. These are all words that quicken the heartbeat. It’s vivacious diction.
If small talk is walking sensibly, gossiping is dancing. Small talk is the polite, anodyne conversation reserved for colleagues, in-laws and clients. It’s contains the sanitised, beige language for when you’re playing by somebody else’s rules and expectations. How are you? What’s for lunch? What’s up? How’s work? How’s your week? What’s goin’ on? What have you been up to? It’s literally small talk. Most of it is monosyllabic. And who ever gives a truly authentic response to ‘how are you?’ I know I certainly don’t. People would be appalled. Especially before I’ve had my morning mocha.
Gossip, in contrast, is reserved for your best friend, your confidante, your closest colleague. There’s immediate intimacy and promise. Whispered tones encourage you to move physically closer to one another. It’s the bonding thread of language, which fosters closer social connection through the hint of intrigue. It fosters friendship because it involves trust and unencumbered expression. When we fall back on small talk, we often go through the motions and conceal what we really want to say. Gossip is an essential psychological break from the formalities of work life and polite company. Taboos are explored rather than censored; politics, religion and sex are indulged, not silenced. You’re not confined to what’s deemed appropriate; it’s liberating language. And it’s big business – celebrity gossip is what props up the glossy magazine industry.
But it’s by no means a new phenomenon. Gossip is more than just sexy: it is, I’d argue the very essence of what makes us human. It sits within the oral storytelling tradition that traces us to our ancient ancestors. Having a yarn and a yack crosses borders, religions and cultures. It’s the foundation of any community, this language that transcends the functional and the ceremonial. And when you meet your mate for a yack, you can either confine your conversation to the weather and the roads, or you can talk about people.
Gossip is the portmanteau of two old English words: God and sibb. A godsibb was someone very intimate to you – a Godparent, but also a sibb – a relative, deriving from sibling. In short, someone you trusted and wanted to speak with familiarly. Later on, it took on a gendered undertone of a person, “mostly a woman”, who is a “newsmonger” and tittle tattles in “idle talk”. It was another way of belittling women and the narrow sphere within which they were permitted to exist.
Today, gossip and hearsay are the bête noirs in the friction where politics and journalism rub: accusations of post-truth and fake news threaten to undermine accurate reporting. But some argue this scary new era isn’t new at all: we’re returning to the days of the medieval peasant or ancient Greece, when news and information were exchanged in the town square in the form of gossip, rumour and flowing conversation. Danish academic Thomas Pettitt has labelled the 15th to the 20th century the Guttenberg Parenthesis – a 500 year outlier when the firm, tangible nature of the printed press convinced you that your information was authoritative, holding a gravitas that gossip could never match. Before and after this 500-year interruption were the oral traditions of the town square and social media, where deciphering gossip and rumour from fact is incumbent on your own analytical skills.
This, of course, is where gossip gets its bad reputation from. It can be used to harm others and spread libellous slander about them. Guess who, don’t sue as one Australian tabloid’s gossip column brands itself. Spreading false information can break up relationships, kill careers – even lose major elections. This is a far cry from the what’s the goss style catch up with a friend which essentially means gossiping about yourself – all those intimate personal secrets you’d never divulge at work.
But if gossiping is what makes us human, then it’ll come with both rough and smooth. One thing any good society will never do is stifle it completely. In a gossipless state, we can never be free.