Tag Archives: Piers Plowman

The art of gossip

I’m in the middle of watching some gossip fly around a certain circle of friends and acquaintances. But before I go any further, I had better define what I mean by gossip. Of course “gossip” can mean nasty, ill-informed rumors, but there is also an older sense of the word, where a gossip is a friend that you’d hang out with and exchange gossip that is a sort of passing the time of day — as in this passage from Langland’s Piers Plowman, as “done into modern English by the Rev. Professor Skeat” [London: Alexander Morning Ltd., 1905]:

Now beginneth Sir Glutton to go to his shrift;
His course is to kirkward, as culprit to pray. (305)
But Betty the brewster just bade him “Good-morrow,”
And asked him therewith as to whither he went.
    “To holy church haste I, to hear me a mass,
And straight to be shriven, and sin nevermore.”
“Good ale have I, gossip; Sir Glutton, assay it!” (310)

In this older sense of the word, a gossip is a friend, and the everyday conversation that such friends have between themselves — talking about mutual friends, family, people they know, what’s happening in the village — is also called gossip. Considered in this sense, gossip is the talk between friends that lets us make sense out of our human relationships. Of course, as we talk about our friends and acquaintances, gossip can turn into rumor and speculation, and rumor or speculation can get nasty, and it is from this subset of gossip that gossip as a whole has come to mean something bad.

I’m watching this unfold right now: human relationships that have gotten a little strained, which has turned everyday conversation between friends into rumor and speculation. I’m lucky: this happens to be a good group of people, and they’re pulling themselves back from the rumor and speculation, proving that gossip can mean what it meant in Piers Plowman. (Now it will be interesting to find out how many people I hear from who think that I’m talking about them, and their gossip. The people I’m talking about don’t read this blog, so if you’re reading this, it’s not about you.)

These days, we mostly think gossip is bad by definition. But that is incorrect. Gossip is, in fact, essential to being human; having friends who are our gossips is also essential. As I said before, the primary way we sort through our many human relationships is to talk about them to friends — to gossip with our gossips. Just because some gossip is bad (and just because some gossips are nasty rumormongers) doesn’t mean we should stop gossiping — in the same way that just because I once happened to eat a piece of spoiled meat and threw up doesn’t mean I should stop eating. The art of gossip is knowing whom to choose for your gossips, and knowing how to avoid the nasty bits of gossip, the gossip equivalent of spoiled meat.