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In interpersonal communication, gossip is idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others.

While gossip forms one of the oldest and (still) the most common means of spreading and sharing facts and views, it also has a reputation for the introduction of errors and other variations into the information thus transmitted. The term also carries implications that the news so transmitted (usually) has a personal or trivial nature. Compare conversation.

Some people commonly understand gossip as meaning the spreading of rumor and misinformation, as (for example) through excited discussion of scandals. Some newspapers carry "gossip columns" which retail the social and personal lives of celebrities or of élite members of certain communities.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Gossip has recently come into the academy as a fruitful avenue of study, particularly in light of its relationship to both overt and implicit power structures. Compare discourse.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Etymology[edit | edit source]

The word "gossip" originates from god-sib, the godparent of one's child or parent of one's godchildren ("god-sibling"; compare the possible cognate of sib: sabhā), referring to a relationship of close friendship. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the usage of godsib back as far as 1014.

The Oxford English Dictionary records the use of gossip in the meaning of "idle talk; trifling or groundless rumour; tittle-tattle ... [e]asy, unrestrained talk or writing, esp. about persons or social incidents" back as far as 1811. This became a primary meaning of the word, although literary as well as everyday English can continue to use gossip in the sense of "talkative woman" (apparently a near-synonym with "godparent" in Early Modern English, the first attestation of the extended meaning of "anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk" dating from 1566). The verb to gossip dates to the early 17th century.

Discredited folk-etymology[edit | edit source]

Despite the academic etymology, one popular etymology (or folk-etymology) connects the word "gossip" with "to sip": [1] the tale tells how politicians would send assistants to bars to sit and listen to general public conversations. The assistants had instructions to sip a beer and listen to opinions; they responded to the command to "go sip", which allegedly turned into "gossip".

Functions of gossip[edit | edit source]

File:No chat.jpg

This Soviet war poster conveys the message: "Don't chatter! Gossiping borders on treason" (1941).

Gossip can serve to:

  • normalise and reinforce moral boundaries in a speech-community
  • foster and build a sense of community with shared interests and information
  • entertain and divert participants in gossip-sessions
  • retail and develop various types of story — anecdotes, narratives and even legends — see memetics
  • build structures of social accountability
  • further mutual social grooming (like many other uses of language, only more so)
  • provide a mating tool that allows (for example) women to mutually identify socially desirable men and compare notes on which men are better than others.
  • it is used as a form of passive aggression, as a tool to isolate and harm others.
  • provide a peer-to-peer mechanism for disseminating information in organizations.

Workplace gossip[edit | edit source]

Peter Vajda identifies gossip as a form of workplace violence, noting that it is "essentially a form of attack." Accordingly, many companies have formal policies in their employee handbooks against gossip.[2] Sometimes there is room for disagreement on exactly what constitutes unacceptable gossip, since workplace gossip may take the form of offhand remarks about someone's tendencies such as "He always takes a long lunch," or "Don’t worry, that’s just how she is."[3] TLK Healthcare cites as examples of gossip, "tattletaling to the boss without intention of furthering a solution or speaking to co-workers about something someone else has done to upset us." Corporate email can be a particularly dangerous method of gossip delivery, as the medium is semi-permanent and messages are easily forwarded to unintended recipients; accordingly, a Mass High Tech article advised employers to instruct employees against using company email networks for gossip.[4] Low self-esteem and a desire to "fit in" are frequently cited as motivations for workplace gossip. Some negative consequences of workplace gossip may include:[5]

  • Lost productivity and wasted time,
  • Erosion of trust and morale,
  • Increased anxiety among employees as rumors circulate without any clear information as to what is fact and what isn’t,
  • Growing divisiveness among employees as people “take sides,"
  • Hurt feelings and reputations,
  • Jeopardized chances for the gossipers' advancement as they are perceived as unprofessional, and
  • Attrition as good employees leave the company due to the unhealthy work atmosphere.

Turner and Weed theorize that among the three main types of responders to workplace conflict are attackers who cannot keep their feelings to themselves and express their feelings by attacking whatever they can. Attackers are further divided into up-front attackers and behind-the-back attackers. Turner and Weed note that the latter "are difficult to handle because the target person is not sure of the source of any criticism, nor even always sure that there is criticism."[6]

Informal networks through which communication occurs in an organization are sometimes called the grapevine.

Various views on gossip[edit | edit source]

Some see gossip as trivial, hurtful and socially and/or intellectually unproductive. The Bahá'í Faith, for instance, refers to gossip as backbiting, and condemns and prohibits the practice, viewing it as a cause of disunity.

Some people view gossip as a lighthearted way of spreading information.

In a more sinister interpretation, restrictions on gossip could potentially paralyse the free flow of information and enforce straight-jacketed thinking and censorship in a community. The term "gossip" typically labels discussion the speaker disapproves of ("I discuss, you speculate, he gossips"). Compare freedom of speech.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

A feminist definition of gossip presents it as "a way of talking between women, intimate in style, personal and domestic in scope and setting, a female cultural event which springs from and perpetuates the restrictions of the female role, but also gives the comfort of validation." (Jones, 1990:243)

In Early Modern England[edit | edit source]

In Early Modern England the word "gossip" referred to companions in childbirth, not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women-friends generally, with no necessary derogatory connotations. (OED n. definition 2. a. "A familiar acquaintance, friend, chum", supported by references from 1361 to 1873). It commonly referred to an informal local sorority or social group, who could enforce socially-acceptable behaviour through private censure or through public rituals, such as "rough music" and the skimmington ride. The literature of the period has many references to this[How to reference and link to summary or text], some of them doubtless fictional. In addition, legal records document actions taken by women themselves in the civil courts, and by the church in church courts.

These include accounts of the rituals that shamed or celebrated women’s sexuality: women washing a neighbour’s private parts with soap and water, or ‘polling’ pubic hair. In Thomas Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors 1566 a ‘walking mort’ relates how she was forced to agree to meet a man in his barn, but informed his wife. The wife arrived with her “five furious, sturdy, muffled gossips” who catch the errant husband with “his hosen about his legs” and give him a sound beating. The story clearly functions as a morality tale in which the gossips uphold the social order.

  • Bernard Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England, Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0199255989

Gossip in Judaism[edit | edit source]

Main article: Lashon hara

Judaism considers gossip spoken without a constructive purpose (known in Hebrew as lashon hara) as a sin. Speaking negatively about people, even if retelling true facts, counts as sinful, as it demeans the dignity of man — both the speaker and the subject of the gossip.

According to Proverbs 18:8: "The words of a gossip are like choice morsels: they go down to a man's innermost parts."

Gossip in Islam[edit | edit source]

Islam considers backbiting the equivalent of eating the flesh of one's dead brother. According to Muslims, backbiting harms its victims without offering them any chance of defence, just as dead people cannot defend against their flesh being eaten. Muslims are expected to treat each other like brothers, deriving from Islam's concept of brotherhood amongst its believers.

Gossip in Christianity[edit | edit source]

Christianity condemns all kinds of gossip. The Epistle to the Romans associates gossips ("backbiters") with a list of sins including sexual immorality and with murder:

28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; 29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, 30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, 31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: 32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them. (Romans 1:28-32)

Jesus also commanded, in Matthew 18, that conflict resolution among church members begin with the the aggrieved party attempting to resolve their dispute with the offending party alone. Only if this did not work would the process escalate to the next step, in which other church members would become involved. In no case did Jesus authorize complaining to another church member without having confronted the offender first.

Internet[edit | edit source]

In 2007 a website JuicyCampus emerged; JuicyCampus contains posts of rumors related to students at various United States universities; the website gained media attention.

Quotes[edit | edit source]

  • Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. - Eleanor Roosevelt

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. See for example the popular-cultural account and discussion of the phenomenon as an Internet urban legend at ; retrieved 2007-02-15.
  2. New Jersey Hearsay Evidence, Human Resource Blog.
  3. The Culture Shock, Tami Kyle, TLK Connections, Summer 2005.
  4. Companies must spell out employee e-mail policies, Warren E. Agin, Swiggart & Agin, LLC, Mass High Tech, Nov. 18, 1996.
  5. Workplace Gossip, Kit Hennessy, LPC, CEAP.
  6. Conflict in organizations: Practical solutions any manager can use; Turner, Stephen P. (University of South Florida); Weed, Frank; 1983.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Robert F. Goodman and Aaron Ben-Zeev, editors: Good Gossip. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1993. ISBN 0700606696
  • Deborah Jones, 1990: 'Gossip: notes on women's oral culture'. In: Cameron, Deborah. (editor) The Feminist Critique of Language: A Reader. London/New York: Routledge, 1990, pp. 242-250. ISBN 0415042593. Cited online in Rash, 1996.
  • Felicity Rash, 1996: "Rauhe Männer - Zarte Frauen: Linguistic and Stylistic Aspects of Gender Stereotyping in German Advertising Texts 1949-1959" in The Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics, Issue 1, 1996. Retrieved from on 2006-08-11
  • Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks. Gossip. New York: Knopf, 1985. ISBN 0394540247
  • Robert C. Ellickson (1991). Order without law: how neighbors settle disputes, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

External links[edit | edit source]

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