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How did "the Gossip" Become a Woman?

Why do you immediately think of a female when someone is described as a gossip?

Although everyone seems to detest a person who is known as a “gossip” and few people would use that label to describe themselves, it is an exceedingly unusual individual who can walk away from a juicy story about one of his or her acquaintances.

Each of us has had firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret, but why does private information about other people represent such an irresistible temptation for us?

Over the past 15 years or so I have done a fair bit of research on gossip, and I have gotten interested in how this brand of social behavior has become so intimately identified with women. I did a little digging about this, and here is what I came up with; it turns out that the answer lies in the very root of the word itself.

Where Does the Word "Gossip" Come From?

The term is derived from the Old English phrase God Sib, which literally translates as “god parent.” The term originally referred to companions who were not relatives, but who were intimate enough to be named as godparents to one’s child. These companions were almost always females and they were usually present during labor and the birth of a child.

Apparently, medieval European births were very social affairs restricted entirely to women. The hours were passed in conversation and moral support, and it undoubtedly was a strong bonding experience among those who were present. Thus, the original word was a noun specifically referring to the female companions of a woman during childbirth, and it was entirely benign in its usage.

However, by the 1500s, the word had taken on a decidedly negative connotation. The first known literary use of the word in this negative context occurred in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines the 16th century use of the word as describing a woman “of light and trifling character” who “delights in “idle talk” and was a “newsmonger” or a “tattler.” Some scholars have suggested (perhaps facetiously) that the word acquired negative connotations over time because one of the side effects of women coming together in solidarity was an increase in hassles for men! It was not until the 1800s that the word was applied to a type of conversation rather than to the person engaging in the conversation.

The useful social role played by gossip in human groups is often overshadowed by the way it is employed by individuals to further their own reputations and selfish interests at the expense of others.

Historically, How Have We Dealt with "Gossips?"

The recognition of gossip’s potential for social disruption is everywhere reflected in a wide variety of laws, punishments, and moral codes designed to control it. One need look no further than the Bible for examples of societal efforts to stifle destructive gossip:

A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends
(Proverbs, 16:28)

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts
(Proverbs, 18:7-8)

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison
(James, 3:7-8)

They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips (James 3:7-8).

A notable exception to the Bible’s pervasive use of the male pronoun and references to men in general in its dictums can be found in an unkind description of widows:
Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies. Saying what they should not.
Timothy (5:13)

And let us not forget that one of the ten commandments is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

Thus, there have always been legal and religious sanctions that could be brought to bear upon gossipers who crossed a line and gossiped about the wrong people at the wrong time. Most nations still have laws against slander on the books, and until relatively recently dueling to the death was considered an honorable way of dealing with those who had transgressed against one’s reputation and good name.

However, an examination of historical European tactics for handling gossipers reveals a persistent concern with clamping down on the gossip of women. The two most common punishments for gossipers in Europe and colonial America from the early 1500s to the early 1800s were almost exclusively reserved for women: The “Scold’s Bridle” and the “Ducking Stool.”


A Woman Wearing a Scold's Bridle
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Scold’s Bridle (sometimes referred to as the “Brank’s Bridle,” or more simply, “The Branks”) was a device used to publicly punish and humiliate women who were perceived as quarrelsome or as gossips, shrews, or scolds.

It first appeared in Britain during the 1500s and it gradually spread to several other European countries, becoming especially popular in Germany. The Scold’s Bridle was a heavy iron mask, somewhat like a cage, that fit tightly over a woman’s head. The mask included a flat piece of iron. This flat piece of iron was sometimes spiked, and it was thrust into the woman’s mouth over her tongue. While wearing a Scold’s Bridle, a woman would be completely unable to speak.

Variations of the Scold’s Bridle sometimes included a bell on top of it to attract attention, and/or a ring attached to a chain so that a husband could drag his wife around the village and subject her to the ridicule of others. The Scold’s Bridle was employed with the approval of the church and local authorities, and in some villages the Bridle was actually kept in a cabinet in the church when not in use.


The "Ducking Stool"
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The origins of the ducking stool are shrouded in the mist of time, but it was in wide use by the late medieval period and it remained in use well into the 1800s in Western Europe and Colonial America.

The ducking stool was reserved almost exclusively for women, although occasionally quarrelsome married couples were tied back-to-back and subjected to it together. Ducking stools consisted of a chair fixed to the end of two long beams, usually between 12 and 15 feet in length. The woman was strapped into the chair, hoisted out over a pond or river, and then plunged underwater by several men who operated the apparatus from land. The number of times she was dunked and the length of each submersion depended upon the degree to which her gossip had been deemed harmful to the community, and it undoubtedly also depended upon the political connections of the people she had offended. For especially serious offenses, a woman could be kept in the chair for hours and subjected to repeated dunkings. Beleaguered husbands could present their scolding wives for ducking with the blessing of the church. Given the condition of the bodies of water located in or near towns during this period of history, what the woman was being immersed in was usually not much better than raw sewage, providing a strong incentive for her to keep her mouth tightly closed.

It is clear that throughout history gossip was formally frowned upon, and that the gossip of women in particular was identified as a serious social problem. The universality of the perceived link between women and malicious gossip is reflected in an ancient Chinese proverb stating that “the tongue is the sword of a woman – and she never lets it go rusty.” However, is there any evidence to suggest that women are more prone to gossip than are men or that women are more likely to use gossip in an aggressive or socially destructive manner? I will reserve an answer to this question for a future blog.

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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