The story behind gossip

The publication of 'Game Change' about the 2008 presidential race prompts the Monitor's language columnist to consider the uses and abuses of scuttlebutt.

The word 'gossip' once had positive connotations, but no more.

I've always wanted to write a gossip column.

And now John Heilemann and Mark Halperin have provided the occasion with their new book, "Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime."

As Hendrik Hertzberg noted in his review in The New Yorker, "The story of the 2008 Presidential campaign is a more than twice-told tale, but this is the first time it has been told in the style of an airport potboiler."

The book contains no identifiable sources. The authors say they interviewed more than 200 people. But they quote none by name. In fact, the authors agreed not to identify their sources at all. This is what is known as "deep background." In theory this frees the sources to speak more freely. It also, obviously, gives them license to embellish or even invent out of whole cloth.

Mr. Hertzberg concludes that the book "leaves one reassured that the voters, given the choices before them, chose well." This may be a journalistic thesis rather than journalistic truth – we are, after all, still early in the Obama administration. But it's still in the realm of journalism.

On the other hand, Hertzberg also observes, "The more sensational passages of 'Game Change' are based on what may be fairly called gossip."

That was presumably not meant as a compliment. But as a former colleague pointed out to me years ago, gossip has a more "godly" background than most people realize.

Gossip was a person before it was talk. The word derives from an Old English word, godsibb, meaning godparent. (Sibb, or today sib, is related to sibling, an Old English word resurrected by early 20th-century anthropologists in search of a single term for "brother or sister.") A gossip was originally one who shared responsibility for a child's religious education with his or her natural parents. This shared responsibility often made for quite a close bond.

Once intimacy became an essential part of the meaning of gossip, the word was extended to other kinds of intimate friends. From there the meaning stretched even further. By the middle of the 16th century it included "anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

I'm going to speculate that the meaning of gossip went downhill when it ceased to refer to the one with whom one shared certain conversations because the person was a close friend, and began instead to refer to one who talked as if he or she were a close friend but was not. Indeed, by the 1620s, gossip as a verb meant "to talk idly about the affairs of others."

The word hasn't really ever recovered its respectability. And yet my former colleague's comment has stuck with me. One can make the case that there's such a thing as good gossip. The helpful fill-in from the friend who can tell you what was really going on in that conversation at the party that didn't quite make sense to you, or the boss who tells you frankly how others before you have stumbled or even failed in the position you're about to take up: These are arguably examples of "gossip." But they're not "idle," nor are they merely "about the affairs of others."

We're all in the information-gathering business in one way or another, whatever our actual line of work. Getting the right sources, formal, informal, or even on deep background, is part of the job.

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