History’s “Gossip”

Article by Tom Pashley. Edited by Jacques Welcomme. Additional Research by Lauren Puckey.

Gossip magazine cover This, the very first edition of a new online history ‘magazine’ that rides against the growing tide of ‘gossipy’, ‘celebrity’ magazines, got me thinking. ‘Gossip’, you see, is a highly interesting (though conceptually poorly understood) word with a history that is of interest to feminists, gender historians, anthropologists and social scientists alike. The development of the word ‘gossip’ can be seen as symptomatic of wider gender conflicts which suffuse any history told from a gendered perspective, and as this edition has ‘conflict’ as its primary theme, I thought it might be interesting to bring the two together.

The historical significance of ‘gossip’ is found in the evolution of its meaning and its transition from a noun which signified and symbolised healthy female links and bonds and an independent female birthing culture in early modern England. Over time ‘gossip’ developed into a gendered verb which increasingly, and still so, serves as part of a wider cultural dialogue which simultaneously constructs and derides, undermines, stereotypes and pre-determines expectations of what it is to be a woman. You see, ‘gossip’ has not always been a behavioural regulator and as such it has not always held associations with commentary on Britney Spears’ hairdo or Katie Price’s divorce. ‘Gossip’ in its late sixteenth century form was a corruption of ‘god-sib’, or ‘god-sibling’ (a person with a role similar to that of a god-parent now) and had meant ‘a female friend to be present at a birth.’ In its original manifestation then gossip culture provided a collectivity for women which was maintained and upheld for as long as it was for the simple reason that it worked to empower women in a world which was in every other sense overtly patriarchal. However the meaning of ‘gossip’ had evolved by the early nineteenth century to mean ‘idle talk; groundless rumour; informal tittle-tattle’ and it is important to understand why this came about so that we can understand more clearly what our modern celebrity culture should mean to us, rather than what we are told it should mean. In short female birthing culture can largely be seen as a victim of an early modern backlash against female agency with patriarchy infiltrating its rituals with the advent of the man-midwife, its provision of female collectivity through medical professionalization, and most profoundly, its language through subverting the meanings of its various facets – in this case the role of the Gossip. Thus by decontextualising ‘gossip’ and establishing it as a gendered verb, ‘gossip’ no longer symbolised female agency and independence but rather came to form a powerful binary opposition with serious discussion: its male equivalent.

The quiet yet enduring transformation of the word ‘gossip’ reveals how threatening this manifestation of female agency was perceived to be by the early modern patriarchy and how effective the adjustment of the words everyday understanding was in dissolving a once steadfast and independent female culture. This historical pattern holds important lessons for us in the modern day too. The construction of a celebrity culture and the further adjustment of the word ‘gossip’, allowing it to operate on a national and an international scale in the UK has had, and will no doubt continue to have repercussions on our own use of and relationship to language. For example a socially influential celebrity culture contributes to a wider ‘corporatisation’ of language and philosophy, in which celebrities’ come to represent the agenda and interests of corporations with lucrative corporate sponsorship deals having an implicit, sometimes explicit, influence and effect over what they sing, wear, how they conduct themselves, and the values and beliefs which they espouse – that’s why 50 Cent proves inimical to Black interests, in the same way that Britney Spears is inimical to the interests of women and the feminist movement. This trend has subsequent broader implications in a society which venerates and emulates this fictitious corporate created world view, and which comes to assume an identity reflecting consumerism rather than citizenship. However, I digress. This argument of course is but a tiny part of a far wider set of debates and merely orbits weightier questions concerning freedom of speech, civil liberty and the role of the media – which are to expansive and ranging for an article constrained to such modest dimensions. It is an important and a poignant question to ask oneself though, to what extent are your own philosophy’s, political stances, world views and more mundane everyday points of views shaped, manipulated, and penned in by someone else’s profit? And how far are the parameters of our own vocabularies limited by notions of ‘acceptable’ that have at their heart motives and interests that stand in direct opposition to your own, be that in terms of gender, class, religion or politics?

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