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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 202–203). 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 (Shakespeare 5.5.13) while Aaron in Titus Andronicus applies the term in a distinctly pejorative way: a long-tongued, babbling gossip (Shakespeare 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 [Middleton 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 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.
(Middleton 3.2.99–105; for an analysis of this passage, see Jenstad, Lying In and Jenstad, Smock Secrets.)


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MLA citation

Mead-Willis, Sarah. Gossip and Gossips. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022,

Chicago citation

Mead-Willis, Sarah. Gossip and Gossips. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022.

APA citation

Mead-Willis, S. 2022. Gossip and Gossips. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

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Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

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ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Gossip and Gossips
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

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