By Dr Oliver Tearle
There are quite a few ways to describe the act of gossiping, though some of the most prominent synonyms for ‘gossip’ and ‘gossiping’ are subtly distinct from each other in their meanings. Let’s take a closer look – we’ll also share some of the best antonyms for ‘gossip’.
The word ‘gossip’ itself has a curious history: it comes from the Old English ‘God sib’, meaning ‘related or akin to God’, and initially referred to someone who acted as a godparent or sponsor at a person’s baptism. Then, in the Middle Ages, it became a close friend or intimate acquaintance (usually female), and, in particular, a woman’s close friends who would attend at her bedside when she gave birth.
But by the sixteenth century, it had acquired its more familiar meaning: a person (again, usually a woman) who enjoys idle talk, or a ‘newsmonger’. It was only in the nineteenth century that its most familiar meaning as a noun – the idle talk or chatter itself – entered common use.
Synonyms for the word ‘gossip’
CHAT is a common synonym for ‘gossip’, and quite close to it in meaning, denoting idle or frivolous talk, including small talk. Chat first surfaced in the early sixteenth century (the OED’s first citation is from the Tudor statesman Thomas More), and is itself formed from the earlier CHATTER, an onomatopoeic word originally describing the sound made by birds, and another good synonym for ‘gossip’.
Since the early eighteenth century, CHITCHAT – formed simply from a reduplication of the sounds of chat – had entered the language, and similarly refers to gossip, small talk, or light conversation.
Meanwhile, to NATTER has meant (since the nineteenth century, and in regional use, including in Scotland) to grumble, complain, or nag; its more familiar meaning of ‘aimless chatter’ has only been around since the 1940s, perhaps surprisingly. It’s related to the idea of gnawing away at everything, an idea also conveyed by the rhyming slang CHEW THE FAT (i.e., ‘have a chat’).
CHINWAG, meanwhile, was first recorded in 1879 in Punch magazine (‘I’d just like to have a bit of chinwag with you on the quiet’) as a slang term for ‘talk’ or ‘chatter’.
But is ‘chat’ quite the same as ‘gossip’? Gossip usually implies RUMOUR, SCANDAL, or talking about someone or something, especially in a way that spreads particular rumours about people, and although there is some overlap with these other synonyms, perhaps no phrase is closer in meaning to gossip than TITTLE-TATTLE.
To tattle is to stammer or hesitate, and tittle-tattle was formed, like chit-chat, by reduplicating the sounds of that word to make a compound phrase. The phrase has been in use since the sixteenth century, and has meant casual conversation or gossip about other people and their lives (especially of a trivial and unsubstantiated kind) ever since. And if you’re spreading baseless lies or rumours about people, you might be described as TELLING TALES.
In other words, tittle-tattle is perhaps the clearest and closest synonym for ‘gossip’. John Skelton, a poet at the court of King Henry VIII, provides the OED with its earliest citation, from his satirical poem Phillip Sparrow: ‘I played with him tyttel tattyll / And fed him with my spattyl with his byll betwene my lippes.’
PRATTLE has also been around since the sixteenth century, and means gossip or childish chatter.
If you’re partaking in gossip, you are yourself a gossip (noun). A good synonym for a gossip, though a rarely used word, is QUIDNUNC, which in Latin means literally ‘what now?’. In use since the early eighteenth century, a quidnunc is an inquisitive or downright nosy person who is always asking, ‘What now?’ Other, more familiar terms for this quality are BLABBERMOUTH and WHISPERER.
That concludes the best-known synonyms for ‘gossip’, but there are a few rarer but rather wonderful terms which might be of interest. A CLISH-MA-CLAVER, for instance, is a rather glorious Scottish phrase for foolish gossip (the poet Robert Burns used it in a letter of 1794).
CUGGERMUGGER, meanwhile, is whispered gossiping, possibly related to huggermugger, which refers to something done clandestinely or secretly.
A more positive word, though, is KAFFEEKLATSCHER, someone who gossips over a cup of coffee; the term is from the German kaffee klatsch which literally means ‘chatting or gossiping over coffee’.
Antonyms for the word ‘gossip’
But what about antonyms for ‘gossiping’? There are no strict antonyms, but given the close relationship between gossip and the idea of rumour or the spreading of unsubstantiated stories about people, TRUTH and FACTS might both qualify, just about.
Or, since gossiping presupposes talking, blabbering, and rather indiscriminately chattering about something or someone, perhaps SHUTTING UP or KEEPING SHTUM might accurately be described, after a fashion, as antonyms of the idea of gossiping.