Gossip: a quick linguistic history
In their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that many of our everyday expressions take shape from hidden metaphors, and that those metaphors reveal powerful, but often unexamined, beliefs about the world. For example, the expressions that we use to describe argument tend to embody the metaphor argument is war: “Your claims are indefensible; he attacked every weak point in my argument; his criticisms were right on target; I demolished his argument; I’ve never won an argument with him.” The buried metaphor guides our thinking, they argue, leading us away from other ways of thinking about argument: for example, as dance, a pense de deux of cooperating partners.
From this perspective, the history of a word is of interest not only for its etymology, but also for the shifting constellation of metaphors that it has attracted over the years. In fact, the two can be connected: a word’s synonyms may manifest the same buried metaphors that guide its usage in everyday speech. Such is the case for the word gossip, a word that, in modern English, has attracted both synonyms and metaphors that express the sense of eating and drinking.
In the time of Shakespeare, speakers mostly used gossip as a noun, not a verb, although that usage was already changing. As a noun, gossip originated in the Old English godsibb: god sibling, the godparent of one’s child and therefore one’s intimate friend. Shakespeare’s uses of the noun reflect this meaning, which was slightly derogatory because it described womanly behavior: “Shall she live to betray this guilt of ours—A long-tongued babbling gossip?” For a verb meaning ‘chatter’, Shakespeare’s preference is rumor, and the buried metaphor that guides his usage seems to reflect the idea of Fama, a goddess who carried messages abroad: “This have I rumoured through the peasant towns”.
Nevertheless, pragmatic change was already underway, in usage and metaphor both. A contemporary of Shakespeare, Thomas Heywood, uses gossip as a verb: “It is so Gossipt in the Queenes chamber”. And Shakespeare manages a single use of gossip as a verb—“I’ll gossip at this feast”—although, as the Shakespeare scholar David Kastan notes, there it essentially means ‘participate in’. The meaning of this passage in context is notable because the ‘feast’ that the speaker describes is figurative, not literal, and refers to the exchange of stories among long-lost relatives. Russ Macdonald, who studies literary style, observes that Shakespeare achieves his distinctive style in part by seizing on latent metaphors, bringing them to the surface as concrete images, and developing their implications at length. His seizing here on the metaphor of gossip as food reflects the availability of the metaphor in the culture, although it was not yet the dominant usage.
By the 19th century, gossip was in regular use as a verb. More importantly, the new synonyms that attended gossip had left behind the realm of classical mythology to focus, instead, on the human contexts that foster idle talk. For example, scuttlebutt, an informal term for gossip, originated in 19th-century sailing ships, where a butt was a term describing a barrel, and a scuttlebutt a term describing a cask of water around which sailors would gather to drink. (I feel obligated to tell you that the term buttload originates in the same term butt; a buttload of something is a formal description of a barrelful of something.) In the late-19th to mid-20th centuries, kaffeeklatsch, followed by the shortened form klatsch, arose from the German terms for coffee and gathering. The late 20th century brought us water-cooler show, a term for a popular television show that alludes to gossip at the office water cooler. And just a few years ago, the word tea (“I’m about to spill the tea on everything that happened last night”) became fashionable slang for gossip—so my students tell me.
If the synonyms for gossip that arose in the modern era often referred to social contexts of talking over refreshments, so did the expressions that concerned gossip in everyday speech. In Lakoff’s terms, our buried metaphor is gossip is food or drink: we share gossip, pick up morsels of gossip; gossip, when it’s good, is choice, delectable, tempting, delicious, dishy, or juicy. The writer David Rakoff has complained about the maliciousness of these expressions, which reveal the pleasures of gossip to be those of schadenfreude: “This… is ‘juicy’s’ toxic bit of transubstantiation: secrets turned into gossip; your pain into someone else’s pleasure.’ While the modern and the older metaphor both acknowledge the pleasures and perils of gossip, one of them de-emphasizes the perils by placing the butter side up, so to speak. Fama is an openly untrustworthy goddess, whereas it takes reflection to acknowledge that our worst moments, not our best, are the real gossip’s feast.