“Gossip”: a baptism by etymology?

Did you hear about Brad and Angelina? Of course you did. Their divorce is hardly gossip: It’s news, thanks to the stature the celebrities have in our culture. But, as we do gossip about why the power couple split up, we’d be wise to remember the impact #Brangelexit will have on their children, especially as public as it is. And it’s the children, ironically, that’s the etymological subject of so much gossip.

What all the gossip is about

Back in Old English, a gossip was a godsibb, a person who sponsored a child’s baptism. We call them godparents today, and in Christian tradition, this person professed faith on behalf of the child during baptism (infants can’t talk) and ensured its spiritual upbringing should the parents prove unwilling or unable.

Godsibb joins God, as we see with godfather and godmother, and sibb, an Old English word that meant “akin.” So, a godsibb is related to the baptized child not in blood, but in God. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) actually finds record of godsibb in 1014, a compound formation paralleled in other Scandinavian languages (cf. Old Norse guð-sefe).

The form and meaning of godsibb clearly changed over the centuries. By the late 1300s, a gossip was referring to any “familiar acquaintance” or “friend,” likely due to the sense of godsibb as a close but non-blood relation. By the mid 1500s, when the modern shape of the word begins to settle, gossip extended to a “person who engages in idle chatter.” The earliest form, accord to the OED, comes as gossip-like in 1566.

Now, such a chatterer usually referred to a woman, a stereotype that stays with us today – but this may be because, as evidence in the early 17th century shows, a gossip was a “woman’s friend invited to a birth.” Presumably, such friends enjoyed some small talk during the downtime.

To gossip, or “chat idly,” emerges by 1627, and gossip, the talk of such an idle chatter, by 1811. Over the 19th century, the reputation of gossip becomes less favorable, taking on its shades of “groundless rumors.” And gossip column far predates today’s tabloids, found all the way back in 1859.

“My brothers and sisters”

God is an old, old word of Germanic origin, though its deeper etymological roots are quite disputed. Some find God in the Proto-Indo-European *gheu-, “to call or invoke,” others in another root of the same form, *gheu-, “to pour,” as the ancients did their libations.

And the Old English sibb was also a noun meaning “kinship” and “peace,” a unity we can imagine being enjoyed by close relations. And a sibling is such a “kin” or “relative.” But this word died out after Old English, only resuscitated in the early 20th century as a technical term in cultural anthropology and genetics. Indo-European scholars take sibb back to a Germanic base, *sibja, “one’s own,” from *swe-, the Proto-Indo-European root that also gives English the word self.

After their divorce, let’s hope Brad and Angelina find some way to make sib, or “make peace” as the expression once went, for the sake of all their children. 

m ∫ r ∫


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