My decades-long friend Don Levesque has developed a justifiable skepticism about items that circulate in cyberspace purporting to explain the origins of various words and phrases. Yesterday, knowing my interest in such things, he forwarded an e-mail with nine such “explanations.” Here’s one of them:
“Early politicians required feedback from the public to determine what the people considered important. Since there were no telephones, TV’s or radios, the politicians sent their assistants to local taverns, pubs, and bars. They were told to ‘go sip some ale’ and listen to people’s conversations and political concerns. Many assistants were dispatched at different times. ‘You go sip here’ and ‘You go sip there.’ The two words ‘go sip’ were eventually combined when referring to the local opinion and, thus we have the term ‘gossip.'”
Have the circulators of such stories never heard of something called a dictionary? In the online age, the people who spread these stories wouldn’t even have to trouble themselves with hoisting the heavy heft of a good dictionary: in this case, a few touches of a keyboard and mouse bring up for them and for you and for me the entry for gossip in the online version of the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (which a scale reveals weighs eight pounds in its printed version). That worthy book notes that gossip developed from Middle English godsib ‘godparent,’ whose second component is recognizable as the sib in sibling. Apparently ‘godparent’ is still a British meaning of gossip, but for most English speakers the sense of the word that has become dominant is ‘idle conversation about people.’ The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica explained the semantic development:
“The common modern meaning is of light personal or social conversation, or, with an invidious sense, of idle tale-bearing. ‘Gossip’ was early used with the sense of a friend or acquaintance, either of the parent of the child baptized or of the other god-parents, and thus came to be used, with little reference to the position of sponsor, for women friends of the mother present at a birth; the transition of meaning to an idle chatterer or talker for talking’s sake is easy. The application to the idle talk of such persons does not appear to be an early one.”
The second element in Middle English godsib came from Old English sibb, which meant ‘kinsman,’ which is to say ‘a member of one’s tribe, a person related to oneself.’ Going much further back, we find that the underlying Indo-European root is *s(w)e-, which led not only to native English self but to Latin and Spanish se, the reflexive pronoun that refers to ‘oneself.’
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman
Update on May 5, 2011: I’m pleased to see that someone who did an Internet search for “gossip and ‘go sip’ and origin” was led to this article.