Gossip

Here are two facts. The first is: people all over the world love to gossip.

The second is that the English Language has ‘borrowed’ (or stolen if you like) its vocabulary from other languages. So what is the connection between these two facts?

The answer is history. And, specifically, the history of words. If you study the history of vocabulary you will be fascinated, I promise you.

Let’s start with ‘gossip.’ Where on earth did this word come from? We know what it means – men gossip about girls and the neighbours and women gossip about men and the neighbours, and in both cases, gossip is negative in meaning. You gossip about scandal - who is seeing whom secretly!

But gossip, historically, had a much better meaning. We owe this word to our German cousins. The word comes from German Gott, meaning God, and German Sippe, meaning family.

It came into English more than nine hundred years ago, and meant godfather or godmother – a person who acted as a kind of friendly aunt or uncle to a newborn child.

But, gradually, it changed its meaning. When families get together, they talk, and usually about members of the family who are behaving badly. Uncle John is a bit too friendly with the farmer’s wife, and Auntie Joan is drinking too much with that handsome farmboy.

Godfather and godmother have stayed on in English with a positive meaning  – a friend of the family who is especially kind to a new-born child until it reaches maturity.

But gossip is bad – and good fun! I love gossip, don’t you?

Here’s another one. There’s an area of South London called ‘Elephant and Castle’. Now we all know the English are crazy, but this is surely too much!

You will see no elephant nor any castle in that area. So where on earth did the name come from?

History again, and really fascinating. I expect you’ve heard of Henry the Eighth, a king of England who reigned some five hundred years ago. He was famous for having had eight wives but that is not the most important thing about him, surprisingly. Henry was a statesman and a great politician. He wanted to make England an important country and that meant he had to deal with a powerful country - Spain. In those days, the best way to make friends with a foreign king was to marry his daughter, and this is what Henry did. He decided to marry Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his dead brother, and daughter of the Spanish king, Ferdinand.

She came to London but nearly died in storms which nearly caused her ship to sink. Her full name was Catherine, ‘Infanta Castilla’, and luckily, she finally got to South London, on her way to meet Henry. Her title became corrupted into Elephant and Castle, because we English are no linguists, as you know. Henry soon wanted to divorce her but the Pope said no and that was the beginning of the Church of England and Protestantism in Britain because Henry said to the Pope, ‘Well, either you give me a divorce or I’ll start my own church!’ Poor Catherine wasn’t very happy. Henry was a little intolerant of wives – he executed two of them. Why not? Cheaper and quicker than divorce!

But the start of England, as a separate country in its own right, which later became the world’s most formidable power, goes back directly to him. So we forgive him his murders and horrible treatment of enemies – after all, we all do stupid things when we’re young, don’t we?!

(I stole that joke.)

See you again!

Professor Bob Wilde


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