Monday, October 15, 2007

The Evolution of Gossip

According to the OED online, here is the original meaning of gossip, the noun:

"One who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism. a. In relation to the person baptized: A godfather or godmother; a sponsor. Now only arch. and dial."

From this meaning, the word evolved slowly, next referring to women in attendance at a baptism, then to "idle" women, then to the conversation in which "idle" women indulge, and so on, until now one meaning of gossip is something like "conversation full of rumor" or "idle, potentially negative conversation about people" (these are my definitions, not those of the OED, in case that wasn't obvious). And we now have the accompanying verb, "to gossip."

One can imagine women involved in a baptism conversing, and one can imagine men (for example) ultimately deciding that this was "idle" conversation. It is interesting that "gossip" was thusly "gendered" early on. "Women gossip; men don't." Right.

I think there are two basic kinds of gossip, one good and one not good. The not-good kind is the kind we usually regret after we indulge in it: talking negatively about someone, with a certain schaudenfreude. The good kind is a means by which information is spread informally, especially within well established social, professional, or political institutions. The more tightly such institutions try to control the flow of information, the healthier gossip is, even if one assumes (as one should) that a certain percentage of it will be inaccurate. Gossip as an underground river of information is, I think, a good thing, and it may well have functioned that way in groups of relatively powerless women. Moreover, small communities (a corporation, a town) need gossip in the sense of news-passed-along, not in the sense of mere rumors, negative talk, or false information. But information passed by word-of-mouth, even in, perhaps especially in the age of multiplied media, is still crucial to communities. For instance, I would argue that leakage of certain information from the branches of the federal government is good, and it is of course ironic that G.W. Bush would clamp down like Super-Nixon on leaks within his own administration but then pardon someone convicted of leaking information about a U.S. spy. I would argue that he was clamping down on a good kind of gossip and pardoning a bad kind.

However, it's the not-so-good gossip I had in mind, probably, when writing the following poem:

Of Gossip

Braised café buzz, whispered
faux intimacy, secrets that dearly
desire to fail—gossip,

which idles like the motor
in a cat’s throat.
It is flashy and frothy,

is fascinating, briefly, like a minnow.
Gossip struts,
the short-legged mayor

of Talk’s Township, proud to know
what it imagines it just found out,
eager to get busy and pass it along.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

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