Word Stories: gossipmonger

Steve Taylore-Knowles looks at the stories behind the English language.

Behind every word there is history. And in the case of English, that’s often a history that combines elements from different languages. Take a word like gossipmonger (someone who habitually spreads rumours). It’s composed of two parts, the noun gossip and the suffix –monger. The same suffix can be seen in words like fishmonger and ironmonger. The root of it is ultimately the Latin word mango (trader or dealer). Since it’s been in use in English and other Germanic languages for a very long time, though, it tends to refer to trades that are disappearing from the modern world. The streets of London used to be full of costermongers (street sellers of fruit and vegetables), so-called for the costardes they sold, a kind of apple, but now Londoners are more likely to get their fruit and vegetables from the nearest Sainsbury’s. The form can also be seen in the term warmonger, a word that perhaps has become more common in recent times. The history of gossip can be traced back to Old English. In Beowulf, the epic poem written in the 8th century AD and a key part of the roots of English literature, the writer uses the adjective sib (closely related). The noun sib (relatives, kinsfolk) is now very rare but still survives in anthropology, where it is a technical term for kinship groups. From it, we get sibling (brother or sister). In Old English, it formed part of the word godsibb (godmother, godfather). The b’s became p’s, it lost the d (as did gospel) and the word became gossip. It also came to mean ‘friend’, and was specifically applied to a woman’s friends who were invited to be present at a birth. A birth was clearly a social occasion, when women got together with their friends and talked. Gradually, women have stopped inviting friends over for a chat when they give birth, but we’ve kept the word and now use it to refer to the chat.

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