Gossip!

Heard the latest? No?

Oh, you really need to read this one, then!

Chances are you’re reading this because you couldn’t help clicking on the link and checking the latest gossip. It’s alright, don’t worry. I’m not going to judge you, and neither is this young blog going to become one more sensationalist gossip-driven online publication. I confess I only started my post like this to attract you here. And now I invite you to take a tour among languages and the history of their words. Today we’re exploring the word gossip.

The idea/concept of gossiping is likely to exist in every language in the world, as thegossip practice of talking about our neighbours’ private lives is just too appealing. Of course I’m only guessing (and joking), although there has actually been some serious research on the nature of gossiping from the viewpoint of evolutionary psychology. But let’s explore what different languages call this practice and where the terms used come from.

DEFINITION

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the noun gossip as “conversation or reports about other people’s private lives that might be unkind, disapproving, or not true”. Some words with similar meanings in other languages include:

Portuguese (Brazil): fofoca
Portuguese (Portugal): mexerico
Spanish: chisme
Italian: pettegolezzo
Russian: сплетни [spletni]
Japanese: 噂 [uwasa]

Apart from Japanese, all those languages are related in various degrees (all of them belong to the Indo-European linguistic family). Nonetheless, the words they use for gossip are almost totally unrelated. Let’s check what’s behind each of them.

PORTUGUESE

The word used mostly in Portugal, mexerico, comes from the verb mexer, which means “to mix, to stir” and has its origin in the Latin verb miscere (to mix, to revolve, to confuse). So it apparently comes from the idea of confusing what’s true and what’s false about someone.

The Brazilian Portuguese equivalent fofoca (which is also used in other former Portuguese colonies such as Angola) evolved from fuka (to mix) in Kimbundu, a Bantu language from Angola. Many African slaves brought to Brazil by the Portuguese had a close contact with their master’s domestic lives and may have incorporated into their dialects the meaning of gossiping conveyed by the Portuguese word mexerico. The word spread and was eventually absorbed into the variety of Portuguese spoken in Brazil, along with hundreds of other African and Native American words.

SPANISH

A common word for gossip in Spanish is chisme, which probably comes from the Latin schisma, which, on its turn, comes from the Ancient Greek σχίσμα [schisma], meaning “division, separation”. The Spanish term seems to carry the idea of words spread that result in a division or a conflict between people.

ITALIAN

The word pettegolezzo comes from the noun pettegolo, used to refer to “a person who spreads malicious gossip”. The origin of pettegolo is uncertain, but there are two strong possibilities. One is that it would be related to the Latin putus (a boy) through a diminutive form (puticolus). Another possibility would be that it comes from the Latin verb petere, which means “to look for”. How the words pettegolezzo and pettegolo came to be connected to gossiping is still a mystery. What do you think?

RUSSIAN

The Russian language uses the word сплетни [spletni] for gossip, which is also shared  with other Slavic languages such as Ukrainian – плітки [plitki], Belarussian – плётка [plyotka] and Polish – plotka. The word derives from the verb плести [plyesti], which means “to weave, plait, interlace”. The verb itself has a greek origin (πλέκω [pleko] – to knit, to plait, to intertwine). While there’s no widely accepted explanation for how a word based on the idea of “weaving” ended up meaning gossip, a Russian expression might give us a hint: in Russian, when talking about plotting against somebody, one can use the expression плести интриги [plyesti intrigi] – “to weave intrigues”.

JAPANESE

In Japanese, the word for gossip is uwasa (in writing, represented by the kanji 噂 and in hiragana “うわさ”). It’s said to come from Old Japanese combinations of words meaning “private conversation about one’s social superiors”. This somewhat reflects the Japanese culture, which is heavily based on hierarchical differences. And yes, it may also be because gossiping about your boss is always a lot more fun!

ENGLISH

And, finally, where does the English word gossip come from? From family intrigues!

The word evolved from the Old English godsibb (sponsor, godparent), which was a combination of “God” and “sibb” (sibling, relative). In the 1300s, the meaning of the word extended to “a familiar acquaintance, a friend, neighbor”, especially to someone invited to attend a birth. In the past, births were very important social events in Europe (particularly to the nobility and the royals), and were attended by family, relatives, friends and other unrelated but interested people. I’m sure you can easily imagine whispers such as “Is it boy or girl?” and “Has she managed to give the king an heir?” going round the castle’s halls and chambers. By the mid-1500s the word was already used to refer to “anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk”, and in the late 1800s people started using it to refer to “(malicious) conversation about people’s private lives”.

DIFFERENT YET THE SAME

This brief account on the etymology of gossip in only a handful of languages already shows us how diverse the ideas behind the same concept can be. Some languages focus on the harm the action of talking about one’s private matters may do, such as confusing truth and lies and creating conflicts between people. Other languages see it in terms of who is doing it – someone close to the ‘victim’, someone socially lower than him or her or just a wandering kid. There are about 7000 languages in the world, and I guess most (if not all) of them have a word for gossip. There must obviously be some overlapping vocabulary, such as in the Slavic languages, each of them having their own modern version of a common ancestor term. There may well be cultures that gossip and talk about gossiping, but don’t have a word for it. I wonder if there’s any language where the concept of gossiping is not present (which is also something quite likely).

Now go have a natter with your friend and advertise (but don’t gossip about) this blog. Please.


SOURCES

BONOMI, F. (2018) Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italianahttps://www.etimo.it

CUP, Cambridge University Press (2018) Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus – https://dictionary.cambridge.org

GP, Gramota Portal. Slovari Russkogo Yazyka (2018) – http://gramota.ru/slovari/

HARPER, D. (2018) Online Etymology Dictionaryhttp://www.etymonline.com

HOUAISS, A. et al. (Orgs.). Dicionário Houaiss da língua portuguesa. 1.ed. Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2009. 1986 p.

MPL, MacMillan Publisher’s Limited (2018) Online English Dictionary – https://www.macmillandictionary.com

RAE, Real Academia Española (2018) Diccionario de la Lengua Española (DLE)http://dle.rae.es

WIKIPEDIA. Wikitionary (2018) – https://en.wiktionary.org

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Bistro

Words. The bearers of meaning, the core of every natural language (although not from a scientific point of view – check out phonemes, morphemes and syllables). We hardly ever think about the words we use when we are speaking, texting or posting something on the Internet. We take words for granted, as if their only meaning was the one we meant to convey when using them. As though they did not have a history. Today, while watching a documentary on Netflix (who does that?) I learned the history of the word bistro.

As far as my knowledge reached, I knew the Portuguese word “bistrô” and the English word “bistro” were both quite obvious borrowings from the Frenkutuch “bistro”, and all of them meant a small restaurant or bar, especially one in a French style. But as often as not, words have way more interesting pasts.

In 1812, Napoleon and his apparently unbeatable army invaded Russia. I will not go into all the very interesting historical events (you might well google it if you are not familiar with them), but it is enough to say that in that year the Napoleonic forces suffered their first big defeat and retreated after nearly succumbing to the fierce Russian winter. These facts alone could already count as extraordinary and amazing, but that was not the end. During the following two years, the Russian Army chased the French back into France and marched into Paris, for Napoleon’s utter humiliation.

The Tsar’s forces stationed in the French capital for a couple of months, which certainly led to quite a clash of cultures and countless situations of language contact. It is said that Russian soldiers would often come into the local shops and restaurants and demand to be served right away. In Russian, the word for “quickly” is “быстро” (pronounced more or less like “biss-tre”). It seems to have taken no time till smart shop owners associated the Russian word with the kind of service they sought to provide. And this is how the “French” word bistro was born.

This is only a highly possible, if not likely, account of where the word came from. There are a few other theories, as there does not seem to be any scientific research to have focused on tracking down the term. We should also bear in mind that, as interesting as that story may seem, it is still not the whole thing again. The very Russian word “быстро” certainly has its own history as well. How far into the dark past of words are you willing venture? Do not forget to stop by a bistro before and get yourself a coffee and big, yummy croissant!

See you all next time.

P.S. For those interested in the documentary I mentioned, look for “Empire of the Tsars”.

 

Do you fancy some coffee?

Are you having some coffee right now? I am. As a Brazilian, I have a close connection to this energetic drink. My country has been the highest global producer of coffee beans for over 150 years. A Lebanese friend of mine once proudly told me coffee had come from the Middle East, which is true. Partly true. Although the plant is native from Ethiopia, the drink was created in Yemen. It coffeemade its way onto our tables by “subdueing” several cultures throughout the past 600 years. There is this very cool book about the drink’s history. In today’s post, however, we are going to talk about the word coffee.

Have a look at the picture on the left, or google something like “how to say coffee in different languages” and you will notice the word changes very little, regardless of which language you pick. Apart from very few exceptions, the world uses a lot of variations of an Arabic word: قَهْوة (qahwah), but even this one might have come from another language’s word.

The English word came from Italian caffè in the 1600s. On its turn, the word cafe (meaning a small restaurant selling light meals and drinks) only appeared in English two hundred years later, coming from French café. As we can see, Romance languages appear to have quite a pervasive impact in the lexicon of English language. I intend to write about that in a future post.

Back to the history of the word coffee, where did Italian get its caffè from? It is mostly agreed that it comes from Ottoman Turkish kahveh, which, on its turn, comes from Arabic qahwah mentioned above. As for the origin of the Arabic word, there are several theories. One of them suggests that the word qahwah – originally used to refer to wine – derived from the verb qahiya (قهي), “to lack hunger”. Another theory holds that the root of the word, q-h-h, comes from Proto-Central Semitic and means “dark”. There is also a possible connection with the region of Kaffa in Ethiopia, where the plant comes from.

The drink (and its name) got to Europe with the Ottoman Empire, and from there it traveled westward to the New World. Meanwhile, coffee accompanied the Muslim spread to the East. Now, the whole world drinks it and calls it basically the same.

How would you like your coffee today?


SOURCES