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.


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.


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”.


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 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


Discovering the linguist in myself

…So I tried to establish the reasons why writing about languages and linguistics could be relevant to me.

The other day, while sitting around with a couple of books on my lap, I had an idea. ‘What if I create a blog to write about languages, linguistics and the like?’, I pondered. My next thought was that it would be a stupid idea. Too many more experienced, important people had already dedicated their time to something like that. Who would read me? Who would even find me in this endless sea called the Internet?

Another big drawback with my idea was my previous tries, all of which deemed fruitless. I had already had other blogs (about my side job as a musician, aresearchbout my travel experiences, about English language learning), but I could not find the will to commit to them for too long. Most of them did not reach their second year. I realised that, if I was to commit to a blog, it had to matter to me more than somewhat. It had to be closely connected to my current work and research. So I tried to establish the reasons why writing about languages and linguistics could be relevant to me.

That exercise rekindled fond memories of my childhood years, when I first came across linguistics. It was about 16 years ago, when I was 13. At that time I was obsessed with the Ancient Egypt and I was sure I was going to do History in university and eventually become an egyptologist (I was not aware of how hard it is to get into the mainstream of Egyptology). I had a magazine about Egypt and one of its articles was about hieroglyphs. I learnt that scholars only managed to “break the code” of that mysterious language after finding the Rosetta Stone. I really wanted to learn how to read the Egyptian script, but I simply had no access to coursebooks so specific, and the Internet was still precarious where I lived.

My interest in the Egyptian language eventually waned, but another language piqued my curiosity. In my teenage years, I was lucky to be in a close-knit group of friends, and one of those friends belonged to a family that had immigrated from Lebanon in the beginning of the 20th century. He would tell me how his grandparents spoke Arabic at home, and how he and his parents could understand most of the language but were unable to speak it (a phenomenon I later learnt to be called “passive bilingualism“). This friend of mine had tried to study the language on his own, and I made him teach me what he knew. Still, to this day, I can understand and use the Arabic alphabet and have a short basic conversation in Levantine Arabic.

Meanwhile, other less committed attempts to pick up foreign languages included some contact with Latin, through old missals found on a dusty bookshelf in the church I used to go to; Spanish, with some coursebooks I had been given and in a year of short weekly lessons during my second year in secondary school; and English, as it was the main foreign language taught at school.

My last year in secondary school played a determinant role in my choosing of career. It was 2005, I studied in a state school in the town of Pedro Osório, and we had one 60-minute lesson of English language a week. Obviously, I could hardly yield any learning results from those lessons, as most of the students were not really interested in the language. But I was! So I found out that my teacher also owned a small English language school. He eventually saw how interested and motivated I was about learning English and invited me to work as a language assistant at his school. I would be able to attend lessons there if I helped with the school’s organisation during the week. That was my first work experience and I had the chance to see how a language school worked. At the end of that year I passed the university entrance examinations and moved to the city of Pelotas to study TEFL (Teaching of English as Foreign Language) at the Federal University of Pelotas.

My four and half years as an undergraduate student had a major role in shaping my professional profile. I understand many people end up dropping out and trying other programmes before they can finally find their vocation, but for me it was love at first sight. When I entered university, there were about 25 people in my class, most of whom had already studied English for many years. I was one of the few odd men out. Apart from the not very effective secondary school lessons, I had had just about 20 hours of formal English language instruction at my former teacher’s school. And now I was in a programme that would teach me how to teach a language I barely knew myself. Quite a challenge! I took it on and got round it! During my undergraduate years I managed to work for four consecutive terms as an English language teacher at the university’s extension courses. I also taught myself some Spanish, had a one-year course of Latin and did a six-month course of German.

From 2009 to 2010 I worked in a small language school in one of the suburbs of Pelotas. Then I graduated and got a new job in Yázigi, a high-profile language school chain, the oldest in Brazil. Still in 2010 I met (on a penfriend website for language learners) the person who would become my wife a couple of years later, a Russian girl called Ekaterina. When we first met in person, in 2012, she gave me a Russian coursebook, and that is how I started learning one more language.

Two years ago, when I was trying to make up my mind about what to investigate in my Master’s degree research, I remembered all those foreign languages I had had any sort of closer contact with – namely, Ancient Egyptian, Arabic, English, Spanish, Latin, German, and Russian. On several occasions while studying one of those languages, I felt that what I knew about another language could help me. I used my previous linguistic knowledge countless times, both consciously and unconsciously, to get hold of new vocabulary or structures in the language I was learning. That was it! My research was going to be about cross-linguistic influence in foreign language learning.

Today, somewhere halfway through my dissertation research, I am sure that was the right choice. I am more and more convinced that second/foreign language learning and teaching depends a lot on the knowledge teachers and learners have about language contact and crosslinguistic similarities, so I am going to use this blog to share with you my research and talk about other interesting topics related to multilingualism, language contact and foreign language teaching.

See you next time!