Gossip and Gossips
Though used nowadays to denote “one who delights in idle talk” or “the conversation of such a person” (OED gossip, n.3–4), gossip in early modern parlance had a considerably more ambiguous application.
In Middle English, a god-sib (godsip, gossib, gosop) was a child’s sponsor at baptism, a godparent, a child of one’s godparent, a godchild of one’s parent – in short, any close kin (literally, god-sibling) related not by blood but by sacrament, namely the sacrament of christening (Kuhn and Reidy 216). The intimacy of the term could extend to encompass a close friend or companion, and it was sometimes used as an item of direct address (Kuhn and Reidy 217).
A series of circumstantial associations nudged gossip from its original meaning toward its early modern usage. By Shakespeare’s time, the term still denoted a godparent or baptismal sponsor, as well as a close companion, friend, or neighbour (Crystal and Crystal 202). However, gossip could also operate as a verb (to be a close companion, to make merry with one’s companions [Crystal and Crystal 202–03]). In addition, it was starting to accrue distinctly misogynistic connotations. This latter transformation likely had to do with the term’s application to women present at a birth and, by association, the loose chatter that supposedly characterized such gatherings (Trussler 72). Gossip could therefore denote a (usually female) blabbermouth (Crystal and Crystal 202) – whence our present-day use of the word (OED gossip, n.3).
The multiple definitions of gossip can be seen in its various applications in early modern drama. King Henry in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII addresses the godparents of his daughter Elizabeth as “noble gossips” (5.5.13) while Aaron in Titus Andronicus applies the term in a distinctly pejorative way: “a long-tongued, babbling gossip” (4.2.152). The Gossips in Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside offer an excellent example of the word’s many denotative hinges. A group of women gathered for a christening (a “gossiping” [2.1.169]) punctuate their (inebriated) conversation with repeated terms of address, so that “gossip” becomes an almost-onomatopoeic signifier of the sensitive information bandied about in their chatter:
(3.2.99–105; for an analysis of this passage, see Jenstad, “Lying In,” and “Smock Secrets")3 GOSSIP See gossip and she lies not in like a countess;Would I had such a husband for my daughter.4 GOSSIP Is not she toward marriage?3 GOSSIP O no sweet gossip.3 GOSSIP Ay that she was last Lammas,But she has a fault gossip, a secret fault.
- Crystal, David, and Ben Crystal. Shakespeare’s Words: A Glossary and Language Companion. New York: Penguin, 2002. Print.
Lying-in Like a Countess: The Lisle Letters the Cecil Family, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34 (2004): 373–403. Web. Subscr. Duke UP. doi:10.1215/10829636-34-2-373.
Smock Secrets: Birth and Women’s Mysteries on the Early Modern Stage.Performing Maternity in Early Modern England. Ed. Katherine Moncrief and Kathryn McPherson. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. 87–99. Print.
- Kuhn, Sherman M., and John Reidy, eds. Middle English Dictionary. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1963. Print.
- Middleton, Thomas. A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Ed. Alan Brissenden. 2nd ed. New Mermaids. London: Benn, 2002. Print.
- Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Web. Subscr. OED.
- Shakespeare, William. The Life of King Henry the Eighth. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Print. 919–64.
- Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Print. 966–1004.
- Trussler, Simon. Shakespearean Concepts. London: Methuen, 1989. Print.
This project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
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