You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

f/k/a archives . . . real opinions & real haiku

November 7, 2007

good gossip bad gossip (good gumbah bad gumbah)

Filed under: Haiku or Senryu,viewpoint — David Giacalone @ 3:10 pm

the gossip
her yard fills
with leaves

…………………………. from Tom Painting’s chapbook piano practice

If my stamina holds out (and I decide to skip doing my Spanish for Beginners homework for this evening’s Adult Ed class), I’ll be posting a review of Dan Solove’s book The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale Univ. Press, Oct. 2007) sometime this afternoon evening week lifecycle [find the review here]. One reason I can’t seem to wrap up the review, is that the book keeps leading me to so many interesting topics. For instance, the history of the concept and the word “gossip.” In The Future of Reputation, Prof. Solove points out that “Gossip is often thought of as unseemly, but it has both good and bad qualities.” He continues:

“As the philosopher Aaron Ben Ze’ev observes, ‘Gossip is engaged in for pleasure, not for the purpose of hurting someone.’ . . . Indeed, much gossip isn’t malicious, and it is something that most of us engage in. Although people quickly denounce gossip, it remains ubiquitous. According to one study, about two-thirds of all conversations involve gossip, and as one writer [Keith Devlin] sums it up, ‘What people talk about is mostly other people’.”

Solove explains how gossip is used to shape reputations and help enforce societal norms. He (rightly) worries that the internet has transformed gossip and shaming from “forgettable whispers within small local groups to a widespread and permanent chronicle of people’s lives.” In this post, I’m wondering just how something that is natural and usually enjoyable, and that we all do (usually without guilt or even a reason to feel guilty) has come to have such a negative reputation.

Gossip: the Movie (2000) Gossip: the Movie Poster

The quick and widespread denunciation of gossip that Solove describes has apparently been going on for a very long time (or, is that just the typical historically-myopic assumption of a modern American?). The universal Bad Rap on Gossip became even more mysterious for me, yesterday, when I decided to get a better grasp of the many meanings of the word gossip, and headed to some online dictionaries. You see, that’s when I discovered its etymology.

dictionaryG If you click on, you’ll see the many meanings of the word gossip. Here’s a typical listing, from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition, 2000):

gossip: N. 1. Rumor or talk of a personal, sensational, or intimate nature. 2. A person who habitually spreads intimate or private rumors or facts. 3. Trivial, chatty talk or writing. 4. A close friend or companion. 5. Chiefly British A godparent.

The first three meanings were expected. But #3 and #4 were surprising. A gossip is “a close friend or companion,” and in Britain the term is sometimes used to denote one’s godparent. As often happens when I peruse a dictionary, I immediately looked for the word’s etymology and learned from the American Heritage Dictionary that gossip came from:

Middle English godsib, gossip, godparent, from Old English godsibb : god, god; see god + sibb, kinsman; see s(w)e- in Appendix I.

Similarly, Wiktionary explained, “From Old English godsibb, where it meant “godparent”. Later it came to mean a person who is your friend or companion. Since friends do a lot of talking the modern meaning of ‘idle talking’ has stuck.” This intrigued me enough to seek out the listing for “gossip” at the marvelous Online Etymology Dictionary, which told me:

gossip: O.E. godsibb “godparent,” from God + sibb “relative” (see sibling). Extended in M.E. to “any familiar acquaintance” (1362), especially to woman friends invited to attend a birth, later to “anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk” (1566). Sense extended 1811 to “trifling talk, groundless rumor.” The verb meaning “to talk idly about the affairs of others” is from 1627.

So, “a gossip” went from being a friend you would choose to serve as godparent to your child to “A person who habitually spreads intimate or private rumors or facts.” With little or no due process, I might add. How strange. And, how strangely like the word “gumbah”. which was treated at length here at f/k/a in the post “goomba goombah gumba gumbah” (April 1, 2006; which was indeed given that title to attract various search engine queries and spellings).

The American Heritage Dictionary has this entry for gumbah:

NOUN: Slang A companion or associate, especially an older friend who acts as a patron, protector, or adviser. ETYMOLOGY: Probably alteration of Italian compare, godfather, from Medieval Latin compater. See compadre.

Of course, you do not have to be a fan of Mario Puzo novels or Godfather movies or the Sopranos to know that “gumbah” no longer has such congenial connotations. As we said in our posting:

There is a very good discussion of the meaning of “gumbah” at The Maven’s Word of the Day (April 4, 1997). Maven says there are three basic “senses” of the term:

The earliest sense found in English is ‘a friend or associate’. This is first found in the mid 1950s, and seems to have been popularized by Rocky Graziano . .

The second, and most familiar, sense is ‘a mafia boss; a mafioso’, or broadly ‘any organized crime figure’. The first known use of this sense is in Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather, the origin, of course, of the movie: [Hollywood producer Jack Woltz tells Ed Hagen:] “I don’t care how many guinea Mafia goombahs come out of the woodwork.”

Finally, the English-only sense is ‘a stupid person’, first found in the 1950s but not common until the 1980s. This is presumably based on stereotyped portrayals of low-level mafiosi as ignorant, loutish types.

In our prior post, I also noted that: Like many words, the context is important in deciding whether “goombah” is being used in a respectful-affectionate or derogatory manner. Your editor grew up among people who called close, longtime family friends goombahs — the kind of people you would want to be the godparent at the Baptism, or sponsor at the Confirmation, of your child. I always thought of its source, the Italian word “compare“, as meaning a person “with my father”: someone who has been a part of a close circle of one’s parents’ and grandparents’ friends for a long time.” [But, note, even this Homeboy nods, and I admit saying that Antonin Scalia was “willing to act like a tasteless goombah in public,” while discussing his little Sicilian chin-flip flap back in March 2006.]

empty bottle
a few words
I would like to take back

…………………..……… by John StevensonQuiet Enough (2004)

Sadly, if I call a friend a gumbah now, he or she is probably going to feel offended (or onlookers will think I had hurled an insult, and expect a duel, or an apology), unless I append a large dose of explanation. The situation is even more extreme for the word “gossip” — probably even in Britain, where I bet it is not used often anymore to refer to a godparent. What does this tell us about the evolution of our society — words that once denoted the closest of friends have come to have only negative meanings and connotations? Et tu, Brute?

on the face
that last night called me names
morning sunbeam

………………………. by George Swede – Almost Unseen (2000)

I’m not sure if we can salvage the word gumbah. Almost certainly, there is not much hope at all for rehabilitating “gossip,” either. However, don’t be surprised when– as my poet friend in Toronto often does — you accuse me of gossiping, I readily plead guilty. And, because I try to confine my gossip to the entertaining, non-malicious, and only mildly-intimate variety, I will refuse to feel any guilt at all. Of course, I reserve the right to condemn mean-spirited, broadly-distributed, hurtful gossip — and to decide which is which. Capice, Gumbah?

magglass For further study, see Prof. Mark Liberman at Language Log, who has a very interesting look at the purported differences between the sexes when it comes to gossiping. See “Guess what!” (Feb. 20, 2007) Besides reporting that men gossip just as much as women, he notes that women often deride the poor gossiping skills of men, who don’t give enough detail or feedback (as in, “Guess what, guess what?!”, “NO!, really?!” and “Oh my GOD!”). Mark turns a nice phrase, with “rather than bonding by picking nits out of one another’s fur, we bond by picking nits in one another’s behavior.”

afterthought (Nov. 14, 2007): Backtracking from a search engine hit at this weblog, I discovered a short, informative piece by Australian psychologist (and former geologist) Beth McHugh, titled “Gossip can be good for you” (Feb. 15, 2006) McHugh differentiates between malicious lies and “vicious bitching matches,” that constitute “bad gossip,” and “good gossip.” She notes that men do indeed gossip as much as women, but that adolescents gossip the most (using gossip as a “powerful way of cementing bonds between individual adolescents”). She and states:

But even out there in the adult world, social psychologists report that gossip is also beneficial in creating lasting bonds. Gossip has been shown to:

1. Strengthen relationships between friends and work colleagues

2. Reinforce shared values

3. Offer increased feelings of “connectedness” and community spirit

4. Assist in controlling the poor behavior of others, particularly in an office situation

5. Offers a sense of status by being included in the “gossip circle”

their laughter
is not about me
but would sound
just like that
if it was

……………………… by John StevensonQuiet Enough (2004)

p.s. On a related topic: I’ve been meaning to point you to the NYT article “F.T.C. Member Vows Tighter Controls of Online Ads” (New York Times, by Louise Story, Nov. 2, 2007). “Because of the increased tracking of people’s Internet activities by marketing firms, a member of the Federal Trade Commission vowed to exert more controls over online ads. . . Jon Leibowitz, the commissioner, said he was concerned about ads being shown to children online and about the tactics advertisers are using to collect data about people.” Click to see Com’r Leibowitz’s speech, “So Private, So Public: Individuals, The Internet & The Paradox Of Behavioral Marketing,” given to the FTC Town Hall Meeting on “Ehavioral Advertising: Tracking, Targeting & Technology” (Nov. 1, 2007; webcast)

And, see “Mobile phone firms plan to find out what you’re talking about . . . and tell advertisers” (London Times, Oct. 27, 2007; via Barrister Blog Weekly News, Nov. 7, 2007)


  1. You gumbah, you! And I mean that in the Graziano-est sense. Great post.

    Comment by Bob Ambrogi — November 7, 2007 @ 4:20 pm

  2. Coming from you, compadre, a most gracious comment and compliment!

    Comment by David Giacalone — November 7, 2007 @ 4:29 pm

  3. GOSSIP — A FORM OF WORKPLACE VIOLENCE….another perspective

    To many folks, the idea of “workplace violence” connotes the physical harm that one may do to another. However, there is another form of workplace violence that is as dangerous and insidious, and this is workplace gossip.
    Gossip is any language that would cause another harm, pain, or confusion that is used outside the presence of another for whom it is intended.
    As a facilitator, trainer and business coach, I’ve experienced numerous workplace situations where gossip was a norm. Curiously enough, in these same organizations, most folks would say they were “against” it.
    Even more, in these same situations, after formal meetings to discuss the “gossip issue,” after sensitivity workshops designed to reduce and eliminate pernicious gossip, after mandating “there be no more gossip…” and after pledging to have more honest, open and direct communication (wherein folks verbalized their “commitment” to speak directly to a colleague, in order to eliminate the “gossip problem,”) many of these same committed folks consciously choose to continue to engage in the practice of gossip.
    Gossip is essentially a form of attack, which often arises from an individual’s conscious and unconscious fears. For some people, their ostensible commitment “not to gossip” is easily lost in their fears, anxieties, or concerns about what their life might be like if they stopped gossiping. (e.g., “Who would I be then?” What would I do then?” “How would I be one of the guys…?” “Would I have to eat lunch alone?” “Would I lose all my friends?”)
    Some broader definitions of gossip not only relate to “negative” remarks, but even extend to “positive” or “neutral” remarks that are focused on making conversation that is centered on the activities/behaviors of others, again, outside the presence of that person.
    Stopping the practice of “talking about others” is challenging for many. Why? Many folks just can’t be authentic in life. So, many revert to the self-defense mechanism of gossiping, which is a defense mechanism or self-protection device they use to so they never have to “show up”, or be vulnerable, or disclose information about their feelings or emotions, or “open up”.
    For these folks, gossiping is a strategy for protecting against revealing one’s real or true self. These folks have walked around for so long wearing masks and assuming false identities, that opening up and revealing who they really, really are is just downright frightening and threatening.
    So, one’s inner desire to be authentic and sincere, and not gossip, needs to emerge from a person’s deep sense of integrity, and from a conscious, heart-felt desire to be harmless in the context of their life and in their interactions with others.
    Without this profound inner commitment to harmlessness, an injunction to “stop gossiping”, for example, is simply an “outer” induced rule or policy that can often bring up ego-based behaviors in reaction to the “rule.” So, one continues to find “excuses” (since there’s never a “reason”) to gossip.
    From this outer perspective toward gossiping, some people may take on the role of being an enforcer of the rule; others may not want to “enforce” the rule because they don’t wish to be perceived as too assertive, too aggressive, too pushy, or too tough when they call others on their gossiping. In addition, others may not want to be identified as a “do-gooder”, “crusader”, or “spiritual” etc.
    In addition, there are those folks who want or need to be liked and accepted, and who want or need others to feel comfortable with them, and so they often continue to engage in the gossip when approached. Why? They don’t want to feel like the “odd one out.”
    So, at the end of the day (and throughout the day!), the commitment not to gossip often dissipates rather quickly over time.
    Or, someone may be “upholding the rule” outwardly, but still be gossiping in their thoughts, still sending out hostile vibrations, and just being “quiet” about it. Often, this covert behavior is even more dangerous and insidious.
    Gossip is a fear-based behavior and so one’s need for self-protection (i.e., not “show up” authentically) is often greater than one’s initial commitment “not to gossip.” The self-protection brings a kind of pseudo safety and false sense of well-being that might otherwise be in jeopardy; so one continues to gossip to keep the focus on “someone else, not me.”
    For other folks, the issue is not so much that they’re consciously being self-protective; it’s when they DON’T KNOW they are being self-protective that is critical, and thus, many people are unable to take self-responsibility for their behavior. As a result, many folks begin to look outside themselves (blame, find fault, complain, whine…) when they fail to take responsibility for themselves, as they don’t have the awareness to go inside to explore “what’s up.” So, they gossip and look to find some “reason”, out there, to gossip.
    Unless we truly explore our inner behavior (mental models, self-images, ego constructs, super-ego judgments, attendant beliefs, feelings and emotions), we cannot be free from both the urge and the habit of gossip.
    We can stop gossiping in the workplace only when an inner desire emerges from a deep sense of integrity and authenticity, and a conscious desire to be harmless in the context of our life and in our interactions with others.
    Gossip is a form of workplace violence. To be free from inflicting this violence on others we need to explore and heal the split between our outer self and inner self. Only then can we live honest, sincere and responsible lives in the workplace, and out.
    · Why am I engaging in gossiping or supporting others who do so?
    · What does gossiping get me?
    · Is there another way to get this same result without harming another?
    · Does gossiping align with my personal and my organization’s espoused values around respecting and honoring people?
    · Would I repeat this gossip directly to the person it’s about?
    · Would I want to be quoted on TV or in the papers or in the company newsletter?
    · Would I encourage my children to engage in the behavior of gossip?
    · Would I engage in it if it were about a relative or personal friend?
    · Am I expressing my authenticity, sincerity, and integrity when I gossip?
    · Does gossiping match my commitments to my self and others?
    · Do I feel ethical when I’m gossiping?

    (c) 2007, Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D. and SpiritHeart. All rights in all media reserved.

    You may reprint this article as long as the article is printed in its entirety, including the author’s information.


    Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a founding partner of SpiritHeart, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counseling and facilitating.
    With a practice based on the dynamic intersection of mind, body, emotion and spirit — that is, Essential Well BE-ing — Peter’s approach focuses on personal, business, relational and spiritual coaching. He is a professional speaker and published author. For
    more information, or contact or phone 770.804.9125

    Comment by peter vajda — November 8, 2007 @ 8:03 am

  4. Peter, I can’t decide whether to do my usual reply and thank you for your Comment. Frankly, I almost deleted it as [incredibly prolix] Comment Spam. It would have been more in keeping with your touchy-feely philosophy of integrity and inter-personal respect to actually respond in some way to the post — to leave a Comment that addresses the aspects of gossip and the history of the word that are discussed in the post.

    Instead, you have used my piece as an excuse to submit more than 1000 pre-packaged words, and to advertise yourself. For all I can tell, you in fact never read my posting, but some automated robot left this Comment, hoping to use the visibility of f/k/a to promote yourself.

    Good internet and weblog etiquette suggests that you should have in some way made a connection between your Workplace Violence issues and the focus of the above posting. Then, you could have put a link to your article. In the future, I may decide to simply click my Comment Spam button, should you try to piggy-back on f/k/a without attending to the issue being discussed.

    Comment by David Giacalone — November 8, 2007 @ 9:12 am

  5. Just from the little bit you’ve referenced Solove’s book, it sounds interesting. I think I’ll pick up a copy.

    Comment by Aurora — November 8, 2007 @ 8:49 pm

  6. […] Pingback from Limen: Thoughts from a threshold: The Question of Gossip . . . There’s also a great blog post here with some additional commentary and guidelines – be sure to read the last one (#4) if you check it […]

    Pingback by Jenett — December 15, 2008 @ 7:05 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress