Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ambiguity and Ambivalence about Gossip (#1)

We are continuing our "Taking Sides" series on the problem of gossip. Last week, we looked at people who could be considered proponent of gossip. So far this week, we talked about how technology exacerbates the problem and about people who want to exploit it.

Today, we slide into the middle between the two sides.


Some people are neither for gossip nor against it, or perhaps are both. For some,
this ambiguity is nuance, recognizing both the bad and the good and making helpful distinctions. Others are simply unable to make up their minds.


This ambiguity (or ambivalence) is caused, in part, by the ongoing problem of definition. When some people say, “gossip,” there are only bad connotations. But other people mean rather innocuous things by the word.1

The ambiguity is especially evident in English. 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.”2 It comes from the Old English “godsibb,” meaning a god-relation such as a godfather or godmother.3 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.”4

Of course, we know from our study of the Hebrew and Greek words underlying our English translations, that the idea of gossip is much older than English. But because we use the English word, we need to be especially clear what we mean (and do not mean) when we say, “gossip.”5

Loopholes and Contradictions

Christian historian Martin Marty writes humourously about gossip in Christian Century. “Like W.C. Fields and most good Christians, I spend a good deal of time reading the Bible, looking for loopholes. Recently, I focused on getting off the hook with respect to the sin of gossip.”6 Marty explains that he measured the vertical inches of text in his copy of the Bible devoted to both homosexuality (1.3 inches) and to gossip (1.4 inches). “Given that standard, one can conclude that he [the apostle Paul] considers gossip to be as reprehensible as homosexual activity. So we are not left with much of a loophole, and have to take gossip seriously.”7

I’m not sure that he does. Marty goes on to list the putative benefits of gossip described by social scientists (much as we saw above in the Good Gossip anthology) and then to apply them to congregational life. “Since congregations need clarification, rule enforcement, information spreading, initiation rites and social communication, they find themselves fostering and depending upon gossip to survive and thrive. They may not be able to depend upon celebrity gossip to increase interest in their church bulletins, but the other benefits are theirs.”8

On the other hand, Marty says, “Here is the downside: in Paul’s writings, to gossip is to sin. Gossip tends to be whispered, so it may not serve well as a response to Martin Luther’s blurted dictum, ‘Sin boldly.’”9

Marty leaves us in stitches, but perhaps none the wiser as to what to actually do with gossip in a last paragraph filled with ambiguous contradictions. “‘Have you heard the one about your fellow-member who keeps on gossiping?’ ‘Did you know that our pastor regularly . . .?’ ‘I heard that our deacon won’t ask for forgiveness, even though he was heard gossiping?’‘Pass it on, but don’t tell anyone.’”10

[To Be Continued...]

1This is why the definition we arrived at in chapter two specifically addresses “sinful gossip.”
2Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “gossip,” (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, (accessed June 30, 2011).
3The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “gossip,” (accessed February 1, 2011).
4The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “gossip,” (accessed February 1, 2011).
5The elasticity of the English word “gossip” is utilized by Jerry Camery-Hoggatt in Grapevine: The Spirituality of Gossip (Scottdale: Herald Press, 2004).This book will be reviewed more fully in the last section of this chapter.
6Martin Marty, “Keep it to Yourself,” Christian Century 122, no. 19 (September 20, 2005), 55, in ATLAReligion Database with ATLASerials, (accessed July 26, 2011).
8Martin Marty, “Keep it to Yourself,” Christian Century 122, no. 19 (September 20, 2005), 55, in ATLAReligion Database with ATLASerials, (accessed July 26, 2011).
10Ibid. For similar ambivalence (including humor) about gossip in congregational life see William H. Willimon, “Heard About the Pastor Who . . . ? Gossip as an Ethical Activity” Christian Century 107, no. 31 (October 31, 1990): 994-996, in ATLAReligion Database with ATLASerials, (accessed July 26, 2011). For a similarly nuanced (and more substantial) Jewish perspective about gossip and congregational life (though without the humor) see Margaret Moers Wenig, “Sacred Speech – Sacred Communities,” The Reconstructionist 67, no. 1 (Fall 2002): 41-57.