Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Gossip in Early Modern England

by Samuel Thomas

In today’s world, whether it is used as a noun or a verb, the term “gossip” has universally negative connotations. Gossips spread rumors of dubious veracity, and are often considered the very opposite of what a friend should be. But such was not always the case, for in early modern England “gossip” had additional and sometimes contradictory meanings. In this post I’ll briefly outline origins and changing definitions of “gossip” and in a later post I’ll try to rehabilitate gossip’s reputation and make the case for it’s importance to a well-ordered society.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded use of the word “gossip” comes from 1014, but its meaning would have no resonance today, for “gossip” referred to a child’s godmother or godfather. The spiritual kinship between the child and the godparent extended to the child’s birth parents as well, making them “siblings in god.” And here is where things get really cool: “gossip” is short for “god-sib” which is itself an abbreviated form of “god sibling.” Thus your gossips were the women and men you chose as godparents for your child – gossips were your closest friends. (According to the English, the Irish chose wolves as their gossips. As one historian noted, this idea is as interesting if it is false as if it is true.) Intriguingly enough, this meaning of the word – including its inclusion of men as gossips – endured into the late 19th century.

In the seventeenth century, “gossip” began to refer to the women who attended a woman during labor and delivery of a child, or at her recovery (or lying-in) afterwards, and here we can begin to see the word taking on its negative connotations. Prior to the eighteenth century, childbirth was women’s business, and a central occasion for women’s sociability. A woman gave birth not in the presence of doctors and nurses (whom she knew not at all), but her friends and neighbors. Such gatherings of women made some men very nervous, and they spilt a great deal of ink voicing their anxiety. In ’Tis Merry When Gossips Meet (1602) and its sequel A Crew of Kind Gossips (1609), Samuel Rowlands describes the meeting between a widow, wife, and spinster in which the three women exchange complaints about their husbands, and the widow offers the other women advice on how to manipulate their spouses.

While there is no denying Rowlands’s misogyny, his description may not have been entirely off the mark. Writing later in the century Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, describes just such a gathering in terms Rowlands would recognize:

as is Usual at such Gossiping Meetings, their Discourse was most of Labours and Child-beds, Children and Nurses, and Household last they fell into a Discourse of Husbands, Complaining of Ill Husbands, and so from Husbands in General, to their own Particular Husbands.

When Cavendish ( ever the defender of patriarchy ) reprimanded the women for their disrespectful carriage, they turned their guns on her.

the ladies being before Heated with Wine, and then at my Words, with Anger fell into such a Fury with me, as they fell upon me, not with Blows, but with Words, and their Tongues as their Swords, did endeavour to Wound hath so Frighted me, as I shall not hastily go to a Gossiping-meeting again, like as those that become Cowards at the Roaring Noise of Cannons, so I, at the Scolding Voices of Women.

(This episode also makes clear we should not imagine these gatherings as occasions for sisterly resistance against patriarchal oppression. Rather they were the scene of as much infighting and competition as characterized society in general.)

In the early modern period, then, the term “gossip” could refer any number of things, ranging from a child’s godfather, to a woman’s closest female friends, to a woman who spread scurrilous rumors about her neighbors. While some might find such imprecision frustrating, to my mind it simply speaks to the richness of early modern English and the ability of the common folk to define words in terms that were useful to them.

Sam Thomas's debut novel The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery will be published in 2013 by Minotaur/St. Martin's press. He can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and his very own website.


  1. I love learning about the etymology of words and this one really does have a rich history. From godfathers to catty women, quite a transition. (-;

    Thanks for the post and congrats on your historical mystery coming out.

  2. Great post. Really enjoyed it!

  3. Ha! I went searching for this because l am currently reading your book. Thank you!


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