her yard fills
If my stamina holds out (and I decide to skip doing my Spanish for Beginners homework for this evening’s Adult Ed class), I’ll be posting a review of Dan Solove’s book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale Univ. Press, Oct. 2007) sometime this afternoon evening week lifecycle [find the review here]. One reason I can’t seem to wrap up the review, is that the book keeps leading me to so many interesting topics. For instance, the history of the concept and the word “gossip.” In The Future of Reputation, Prof. Solove points out that “Gossip is often thought of as unseemly, but it has both good and bad qualities.” He continues:
“As the philosopher Aaron Ben Ze’ev observes, ‘Gossip is engaged in for pleasure, not for the purpose of hurting someone.’ . . . Indeed, much gossip isn’t malicious, and it is something that most of us engage in. Although people quickly denounce gossip, it remains ubiquitous. According to one study, about two-thirds of all conversations involve gossip, and as one writer [Keith Devlin] sums it up, ‘What people talk about is mostly other people’.”
Solove explains how gossip is used to shape reputations and help enforce societal norms. He (rightly) worries that the internet has transformed gossip and shaming from “forgettable whispers within small local groups to a widespread and permanent chronicle of people’s lives.” In this post, I’m wondering just how something that is natural and usually enjoyable, and that we all do (usually without guilt or even a reason to feel guilty) has come to have such a negative reputation.
The quick and widespread denunciation of gossip that Solove describes has apparently been going on for a very long time (or, is that just the typical historically-myopic assumption of a modern American?). The universal Bad Rap on Gossip became even more mysterious for me, yesterday, when I decided to get a better grasp of the many meanings of the word gossip, and headed to some online dictionaries. You see, that’s when I discovered its etymology.
If you click on Dictionary.com, you’ll see the many meanings of the word gossip. Here’s a typical listing, from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition, 2000):
gossip: N. 1. Rumor or talk of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature. 2. A person who habitually spreads intimate or private rumors or facts. 3. Trivial, chatty talk or writing. 4. A close friend or companion. 5. Chiefly British A godparent.
The first three meanings were expected. But #3 and #4 were surprising. A gossip is “a close friend or companion,” and in Britain the term is sometimes used to denote one’s godparent. As often happens when I peruse a dictionary, I immediately looked for the word’s etymology and learned from the American Heritage Dictionary that gossip came from:
Middle English godsib, gossip, godparent, from Old English godsibb : god, god; see god + sibb, kinsman; see s(w)e- in Appendix I.
Similarly, Wiktionary explained, “From Old English godsibb, where it meant “godparent”. Later it came to mean a person who is your friend or companion. Since friends do a lot of talking the modern meaning of ‘idle talking’ has stuck.” This intrigued me enough to seek out the listing for “gossip” at the marvelous Online Etymology Dictionary, which told me:
gossip: O.E. godsibb “godparent,” from God + sibb “relative” (see sibling). Extended in M.E. to “any familiar acquaintance” (1362), especially to woman friends invited to attend a birth, later to “anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk” (1566). Sense extended 1811 to “trifling talk, groundless rumor.” The verb meaning “to talk idly about the affairs of others” is from 1627.
So, “a gossip” went from being a friend you would choose to serve as godparent to your child to “A person who habitually spreads intimate or private rumors or facts.” With little or no due process, I might add. How strange. And, how strangely like the word “gumbah”. which was treated at length here at f/k/a in the post “goomba goombah gumba gumbah” (April 1, 2006; which was indeed given that title to attract various search engine queries and spellings).
The American Heritage Dictionary has this entry for gumbah:
NOUN: Slang A companion or associate, especially an older friend who acts as a patron, protector, or adviser. ETYMOLOGY: Probably alteration of Italian compare, godfather, from Medieval Latin compater. See compadre.
Of course, you do not have to be a fan of Mario Puzo novels or Godfather movies or the Sopranos to know that “gumbah” no longer has such congenial connotations. As we said in our posting:
There is a very good discussion of the meaning of “gumbah” at The Maven’s Word of the Day (April 4, 1997). Maven says there are three basic “senses” of the term:
The earliest sense found in English is ‘a friend or associate’. This is first found in the mid 1950s, and seems to have been popularized by Rocky Graziano . .
The second, and most familiar, sense is ‘a mafia boss; a mafioso’, or broadly ‘any organized crime figure’. The first known use of this sense is in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather, the origin, of course, of the movie: [Hollywood producer Jack Woltz tells Ed Hagen:] “I don’t care how many guinea Mafia goombahs come out of the woodwork.”
Finally, the English-only sense is ‘a stupid person’, first found in the 1950s but not common until the 1980s. This is presumably based on stereotyped portrayals of low-level mafiosi as ignorant, loutish types.
In our prior post, I also noted that: Like many words, the context is important in deciding whether “goombah” is being used in a respectful-affectionate or derogatory manner. Your editor grew up among people who called close, longtime family friends goombahs — the kind of people you would want to be the godparent at the Baptism, or sponsor at the Confirmation, of your child. I always thought of its source, the Italian word “compare“, as meaning a person “with my father”: someone who has been a part of a close circle of one’s parents’ and grandparents’ friends for a long time.” [But, note, even this Homeboy nods, and I admit saying that Antonin Scalia was "willing to act like a tasteless goombah in public," while discussing his little Sicilian chin-flip flap back in March 2006.]
a few words
I would like to take back
Sadly, if I call a friend a gumbah now, he or she is probably going to feel offended (or onlookers will think I had hurled an insult, and expect a duel, or an apology), unless I append a large dose of explanation. The situation is even more extreme for the word “gossip” — probably even in Britain, where I bet it is not used often anymore to refer to a godparent. What does this tell us about the evolution of our society — words that once denoted the closest of friends have come to have only negative meanings and connotations? Et tu, Brute?
on the face
that last night called me names
………………………. by George Swede – Almost Unseen (2000)
I’m not sure if we can salvage the word gumbah. Almost certainly, there is not much hope at all for rehabilitating “gossip,” either. However, don’t be surprised when– as my poet friend in Toronto often does — you accuse me of gossiping, I readily plead guilty. And, because I try to confine my gossip to the entertaining, non-malicious, and only mildly-intimate variety, I will refuse to feel any guilt at all. Of course, I reserve the right to condemn mean-spirited, broadly-distributed, hurtful gossip — and to decide which is which. Capice, Gumbah?
For further study, see Prof. Mark Liberman at Language Log, who has a very interesting look at the purported differences between the sexes when it comes to gossiping. See “Guess what!” (Feb. 20, 2007) Besides reporting that men gossip just as much as women, he notes that women often deride the poor gossiping skills of men, who don’t give enough detail or feedback (as in, “Guess what, guess what?!”, “NO!, really?!” and “Oh my GOD!”). Mark turns a nice phrase, with “rather than bonding by picking nits out of one another’s fur, we bond by picking nits in one another’s behavior.”
afterthought (Nov. 14, 2007): Backtracking from a search engine hit at this weblog, I discovered a short, informative piece by Australian psychologist (and former geologist) Beth McHugh, titled “Gossip can be good for you” (Feb. 15, 2006) McHugh differentiates between malicious lies and “vicious bitching matches,” that constitute “bad gossip,” and “good gossip.” She notes that men do indeed gossip as much as women, but that adolescents gossip the most (using gossip as a “powerful way of cementing bonds between individual adolescents”). She and states:
But even out there in the adult world, social psychologists report that gossip is also beneficial in creating lasting bonds. Gossip has been shown to:
1. Strengthen relationships between friends and work colleagues
2. Reinforce shared values
3. Offer increased feelings of “connectedness” and community spirit
4. Assist in controlling the poor behavior of others, particularly in an office situation
5. Offers a sense of status by being included in the “gossip circle”
p.s. On a related topic: I’ve been meaning to point you to the NYT article “F.T.C. Member Vows Tighter Controls of Online Ads” (New York Times, by Louise Story, Nov. 2, 2007). “Because of the increased tracking of people’s Internet activities by marketing firms, a member of the Federal Trade Commission vowed to exert more controls over online ads. . . Jon Leibowitz, the commissioner, said he was concerned about ads being shown to children online and about the tactics advertisers are using to collect data about people.” Click to see Com’r Leibowitz’s speech, “So Private, So Public: Individuals, The Internet & The Paradox Of Behavioral Marketing,” given to the FTC Town Hall Meeting on “Ehavioral Advertising: Tracking, Targeting & Technology” (Nov. 1, 2007; webcast)