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 the 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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”.
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!
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.
BONOMI, F. (2018) Vocabolario Etimologico della Lingua Italiana – https://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 Dictionary – http://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