The term ‘gossip’ carries a meaning that isn’t exactly kind. Nowadays, gossip is seen as inherently negative, hateful, and mean. It is synonymous with drama and bullying. This isn’t always what the word meant, though. Gossip’s definition has changed over the course of history, and it is all due to misogyny. Let’s take a look at the etymology of gossip.
When the word was first used, ‘gossip’ simply referred to female friendships. In particular, it came from the word godparent, and it indicates an extremely close bond between women after one of them had given birth. The people that a woman would have with her when she gave birth was referred to as her ‘gossip.’ These strong female bonds were powerful in women’s lives.
How did this term become something so terrible?
In the 16th century, men decided that they did not like the close female friendships that were emerging. At this time, ‘gossip’ shifted into something derogatory as a way to demonize the friendships that women held dear (Akpobi, 2021). Like many things that women enjoy, society has decided that it is immature and petty.
This is not to say that words are incapable of change, nor that all changes in meaning are negative. What is being said is that this specific change in definition is rooted in and continues to perpetuate sexism. And that sexism isn’t even rooted in any molecule of truth, because men gossip as much as women do. Many studies prove this, including ‘Gossip and gender differences: a content analysis approach” that argues that women’s gossip is more positive than men’s.
In early societies, gossip was a form of survival. In Featured Content Rafaela Cortez states that “Maybe we’ve used gossip as a weapon because, historically, it’s one of the few we’ve always had. Shunned from power and influence, gossip networks have helped women fight back.” This has evolved into different, but important versions of the same thing. If you’re a woman, think about this: how many times have you had a conversation with your friends about somebody that is potentially dangerous? Additionally, how often do men have to have those conversations in search of safety?
Misogyny is rooted in many of the terms that we use today. A friend recently pointed out to me that the term “old wive’s tale” is sexist. Typically, when using this word, it is about something that the world sees as outrageous and silly. However, back when these ‘old wives’ came up with their ‘tales,’ it was a means to understand their environment and survive. Sure, they may not hold true, but they aren’t outrageous or silly. Comparing the opposing words with male versus female meanings. Nicola Townsend from Empowered Journalism cites the differences between the definitions of “bachelor” and “spinster.” In Empoword Women, Nicola Townsend says that a bachelor is simply an unmarried man, but a spinster is an older unmarried woman that is “beyond the age of marriage.” The male word is not derogatory, and in many cases, even positive. When a man refers to themselves as an “eligible bachelor” it is in a fun and lighthearted way. However, the word “spinster” has only ever been used negatively and pokes fun at a woman’s age.
This same theme holds true when it is applied to things that women typically enjoy. Women are not allowed to enjoy anything without it being criticized. Recent examples include makeup, astrology, fashion, celebrities, and reality TV shows. People other than women enjoy these things, obviously. But it is women that predominantly enjoy them, and as with most other things that women enjoy, it is demonized. The way we speak, including the words we use, matters. Many of my friends on campus, and I, find it difficult to speak of the things we enjoy because we know it will be turned into a mean spirited joke.
This vernacular may not seem harmful, but it is. By using language like this, we perpetuate the stereotypes that have followed women for centuries. We need to start recognizing that many words we use in a negative light are tied to the experiences and needs of women from the past.
There are large strides to be made regarding misogyny in our world. Large groups of women band together every day to fight for reproductive justice, closing the gender wage gap, and ending domestic violence. Our vocab may not be the greatest of those challenges, but it is an important one. By using these words, we are telling others that we are okay with that type of language evolution – one that villainizes women. It’s time the tide turns. We can start by paying conscious attention to our language. This means we all need to start talking…
Happy gossiping, ladies!