Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Is It Ok to Use the Word "Gossip" to Describe Something Good?

Quick Answer:

Sure! Go ahead, it’s a free country.


Better Answer:

Yes, but make sure that you are clear in what you mean.  Some people just mean “small talk” when they say, “gossip,” and other people mean “bearing bad news behind someone’s back out of a bad heart.”  That could cause problems if you aren’t being clear.


Longer Answer: 

This is a question that comes up often when talking about the problem of gossip. The difficulty comes from the way that language works.  When some people say, “gossip,” there are only bad connotations. But other people mean rather innocuous things by the word. I worked on this problem quite a bit when I was researching and writing my doctoral project.

Older Meanings of the English Word Gossip

“Gossip” hasn’t always meant the biblically bad thing. The first (and therefore oldest) meaning for “gossip” as a noun in The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is “One who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism.”1 It comes from the Old English “godsibb,” meaning a god-relation such as a godfather or godmother.2 What could be objected to in that?

It is only as the language develops that the English word takes on more disagreeable connotations. “Gossip” began to be used to describe the kind of personal talk that might pass between close intimates such as those present at a baptism or a birth. By the fourteenth century, it was used mainly of women and by the sixteenth century of a woman who “delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler.”3

But In the Bible

Now, in the Bible, we know that the idea of sinful gossip is much older than English--and that kind of gossip needs to be resisted. But because we use the English word (which has a history of elasticity), we need to be especially clear what we mean (and do not mean) when we say, “gossip.”4

The same is true of the words “whisper” and “whisperer.” It’s not morally wrong to use a small voice and whisper, but it is morally wrong to live out Proverbs 16:28. “A froward man soweth strife: and a whisperer separateth chief friends” (KJV).

Maybe we need a new word to describe “biblical gossip,” that is, gossip that is always bad all the time.  Or maybe we could resurrect an old one: talebearing.  Or maybe we just need to be careful to define our terms if we think people might not understand us.

Redeeming the Word

The flipside is also true: Just because someone said “gossip,” don’t assume that they meant everything the Bible is saying is bad. The word also has a history of describing something good and redemptive–loving small talk.  You and I might feel uncomfortable when we hear someone talking like that because we want to be biblical Christians, but we don’t want to become the “word police.”

So, when we encounter something like Kathleen Norris calling something “holy gossip,” before we judge her, we should cock and ear and listen first to what she says. “I love the part in our Presbyterian service when, before prayer, we share joys and concerns. We hear about somebody's grandkids visiting from Spokane or the birth of a great-grandchild. We also hear about someone losing a job or going into surgery. That's when the gossips get busy after church and call around. They get in touch with friends, neighbors, and relatives—does he really want to see people? Or is he too tired? Should I drop in today? That is a good use of gossip.”We could call that category: “redeemed gossip.”

Whatever we call it, and whatever we do, we should do it out of love.

1Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “gossip,” oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/80197 (accessed February 1, 2011). The first known occurrence was 1014 AD. It was not coined by Shakespeare, as some have claimed, nor does it come from “sipping something good” while sharing the news in an American tavern. See Andrew J. Harvey, “Glenn Beck Meets Front Porch Linguistics,” Front Porch Republic Blog, entry posted January 27, 2011, http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2011/01/glenn-beck-meets-front-porch-linguistics/ (accessed June 30, 2011).
2The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “gossip,” oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/80197 (accessed February 1, 2011).
3The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “gossip,” oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/80197 (accessed February 1, 2011).
4The elasticity of the English word “gossip” is utilized by Jerry Camery-Hoggatt in Grapevine: The Spirituality of Gossip (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2004). The author makes it clear that our lives are made up of little moments and “small” words. He is not talking just about what we might call “dark gossip,” but about small talk in its many forms.
5Kathleen Norris, Mark Galli, and David Goetz, “Amazing Grace-Filled Gossip: An Interview with Author Kathleen Norris,” Leadership 20, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 56-61, in ATLAReligion Database with ATLASerials, http://ebscohost.com (accessed July 26, 2011).


Thank you for this article. Norris' description is at times what people fear. That their family 'news' will get around. In our church family, many people fear that when so-and-so gets a hold of it, the 'family news' will go viral.