the curious history of the word ‘gossip’




– a person who habitually talks about others, especially maliciously
– a conversation involving malicious chatter or rumours about other people
– casual and idle chat
– light easy communication 




This word is from the Old English noun godsibb, composed of god and the adjective sib(b), meaning akinrelated (cf. the noun sibling, which is composed of sib and the suffix -ling, and originally denoted one who is of kin to another).

The original sense of gossip was one who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism. That is to say, gossip meant godfather, or godmother, in relation to the person baptised and in relation to the parents and to the other godparent.

The latter signification, in relation to the parents and to the other godparent, gave rise to the sense familiar acquaintance, friend. In The Fool of Quality; or, the History of Henry Earl of Moreland (1777 edition), the Irish novelist and playwright Henry Brooke (circa 1703-1783) wrote:

Walter Warmhouse, a substantial farmer in Essex, was advised, by serjeant Craw, that he had an unquestionable right to a certain tenement in the possession of Barnaby Boniface, his next neighbour and gossip, who fattened by the dint of good ale and good humour.

The word was especially applied to a woman’s female friends invited to be present at a birth. For example, the Church of England clergyman Thomas Fuller (1607/8-1661) wrote the following in The history of the worthies of England, published in 1662:

It was fashionable for the Clergy (especially if Regulars, Monks, and Friers) to have their Surnames (for Syr-names they were not) or upper-names, because superadded to those given at the Font, from the places of their Nativity, and therefore they are as good evidence to prove where they were born, as if we had the deposition of the Midwife, and all the Gossips present at their Mothers labours.




The sense evolution of English gossip is similar to that of French commère. This French noun is from Christian Latin commater, composed of the prefix com-, meaning together with, and of mater, which, in Christian Latin, meant godmother. French commère originally designated a godmother in relation to the parents and to the godfather. It came to also denote a female friend or familiar acquaintance, and a woman who likes talking about other people’s private lives (it is now used only in this last derogatory sense).

It is remarkable that the sense evolution of compère, the masculine counterpart of commère, has not resulted in the disparaging sense of newsmonger. From Christian Latin compater, it originally denoted a godfather in relation to the parents and to the godmother, hence a male friend or familiar acquaintance, which is the only sense in which it is now used.

This is why it is commérage that corresponds to English noun gossip in the sense of a malicious conversation about other people.

The French nouns designating a godmother and a godmother in relation to the person baptised are marraine and parrain, from late Latin matrina and patrinus. The latter was derived from classical Latin patruuspaternal uncle, from pater/patr-father, the former was formed on classical Latin mater/matr-mother, after patrinus.


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