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Dismantling the history of ‘gossip’ and how misogynistic propaganda made it a malicious thing

By Alma Fabiani

Jun 20, 2021

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Let’s be honest, when we hear the word ‘gossip’, most of us picture a group of women sitting close together, discussing rumours they’ve either heard or invented on the spot—if your mind goes full-on cliché, you might even have them whisper to each other. For decades now, the act of gossiping has been mostly associated with women.

In the Cambridge Dictionary, the word gossip is defined as “conversations or reports about other people’s private lives that might be unkind, disapproving, or not true.” If you didn’t get the obvious negative and malicious way in which the act is painted, let me assure you that it is undeniably stigmatised.

However, before men turned its meaning into something negative, the word, which comes from the Old English ‘godsibb’, from ‘god’ and ‘sibb’, was used to describe the godparents of one’s child or the parents of one’s godchild, people who were generally very close friends. In relation to the parents and the other godparent, the latter signification gave rise to the sense of familiar acquaintance, friend.

Then, the word became a term for women-friends generally, with no necessary derogatory connotations. It was especially applied to a woman’s female friends invited to be present at a birth. Shortly after, it commonly referred to an informal local sorority or social group.

Throughout the years, the meaning of gossiping gradually changed because of the way society viewed it. Many now see it as trivial, hurtful and intellectually unproductive. Others view it as a lighthearted way of spreading information. But gossiping actually came from a need for social connection.

From bonding to bad-mouthing

At first, gossiping was seen as something that close friends, siblings, or people had to do. It was a way of bonding and showing affection towards each other. It was also found to be therapeutic to women who were asked to stay home all day. It was a way of communication.

Some researchers argue that gossip helped our ancestors survive. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar first pioneered this idea, comparing gossip to the grooming primates engage in as a means of bonding. Instead of picking fleas and dirt off one another to bond, Ludden explained in Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, we decided to talk, which is “where gossip comes in, because chit-chat is mostly talking about other people and conveying social information.”

Gossiping gave humans the ability to spread valuable information to very large social networks. “Were we not able to engage in discussions of these [social and personal] issues, we would not be able to sustain the kinds of societies that we do,” he explained in a paper published in the Review of General Psychology, according to TIME. “Gossip in this broad sense plays a number of different roles in the maintenance of socially functional groups through time.”

Back in the day of tight-knit communities of women performing collective tasks, their deep understanding and detailed knowledge of their societies made them quite powerful. Of course, this made men feel threatened, which is why they started spreading propaganda depicting women meeting up as villains. Soon enough, the stereotypic nature of female friendships being witch cults arose—society thought women would turn their backs on rules if they had the opportunity to meet up and chat about their lives. Women who were seen in groups became a target for hatred and angst, and more often called witches just for expressing an act of freedom simply by talking among themselves.

Laws were made against women who gossiped or held meetings at home or in public. Women were told to stay quiet and remain calm regardless of what the situation may be—not complying led to punishment. The Church stepped in too, enforcing obedience with this lovely little device:

Dismantling the history of ‘gossip’ and how misogynistic propaganda made it a malicious thing

This device, called a ‘scold’s bridle’, ‘gossip’s bridle’ or ‘witch’s bridle’ was overwhelmingly used on female victims and silenced them from speaking entirely. It caused extreme pain and physiological trauma to scare and intimidate the wearer into submission. It was often done so upon request from husbands or other family members.

The iron muzzle fitted in an iron framework enclosed the head of the victim while a ‘bridle-bit’ was slid into the mouth and pressed down on top of the tongue, often with a spike on the tongue as a compress. This prevented speaking and resulted in many unpleasant side effects for the wearer, including excessive salivation and fatigue in the mouth. If the victim attempted to move their mouth, bits of flesh could be torn out. Other punishments included death by drowning and immolation.

During the 18th century’s witch hunts, many women were forced to accuse other women under torture. Friends turned in friends, daughters turned in their mothers—you get the idea. The idea that women hate each other, or at least that we love to bitch about each other, was invented and perpetuated by men.

Men also gossiped, by the way—only it was mostly done in private, especially when it came to politicians and noblemen who sent out their spies to infiltrate their enemies’ homes to know about their affairs. In a way, it was believed that men gossiped differently. When men gossiped, it was due to ‘important reasons’, but it remained different for women, who didn’t work and weren’t taken seriously.

That’s why the act is still stigmatised to this day—the propaganda and torture perpetrated by men who feared women. So, next time you feel like gossiping with your friends, don’t feel bad about it. It’s actually been proven to be good for you. Oh, and that only 3 to 4 per cent of it is actually malicious.

XOXO, gossip girl.