Comedy of Errors engravingAbbess. The duke, my husband and my children both,
And you the calendars of their nativity,
Go to a gossip’s feast, and go with me;
After so long grief, such festivity!
Duke. With all my heart, I’ll gossip at this feast.

In Act V, Scene 1, of Comedy of Errors, Abbess Amelia summons the entire company to “a gossips’ feast.” Today’s audiences assume that the abbess is asking them to accompany her for a time of joyful revel and idle chat about the day’s strange goings-on. However, a bit of research into the term reveals a slightly different agenda.

Our word gossip derives from the Saxon word godsibb, which is a combination of God + sib (relative or sibling). The word meant “one acting as a sponsor at a baptism,” and its earliest recorded use as a noun appears in 1014 according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It appears in a sermon by Wulfstan, an early English bishop, who decries the idea of betraying family bonds: “And godsibbas and godbearn to fela man forspilde wide gynde pas peode.” (That’s Old English, folks. Never let it be said that Shakespeare wrote in that!)

In 1605 Richard Verstegan recorded that “our Christian ancestors, understanding a spiritual affinity to grow between the parents and such as undertooke for the child at baptism, called each other by the name of godsib, which is as much as to say that they were sib together, that is, of kin together through God.”

The gossip’s feast that Amelia mentions had a long tradition in medieval England. Such a dinner was typically held in honor of those involved in a christening celebration. This feasting custom is frequently mentioned by writers of the Elizabethan age and beyond.

Shakespeare uses a similar term in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written sometime between 1590-1596. In the play the impish Puck says:

“Sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.”

The phrase “gossip’s bowl” appears again in Romeo and Juliet when Capulet tells the Nurse:

Peace, you mumbling fool!
Utter your gravity o’er a gossip’s bowl;
For here we need it not.

Shakespeare coined the verb form of gossip in 1590 when he used the term in Comedy: “With all my heart I’ll gossip at this feast,” declares the Duke of Ephesus. The Bard used the verb form again in 1601 in All’s Well that Ends Well: “There shall your master have a thousand loves, a world of pretty, fond, adoptious Christendoms, that blinking Cupid gossips.”

It wasn’t until 1627 that scholars find the word gossip recorded as meaning “to talk frivolously about other people and their business.” And the rest, as everyone says, is history. Perhaps all that fellowshipping with one’s relatives got out of hand—the guests ran out of things to talk with each other about and started talking about each. Probably a lot like today’s family reunions.

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