Thursday, May 19, 2016

A homilette on gossip

"Now, give me a word, any word..."
I'm a lover of the English language. Rarely does a day go by that I don't open up some etymology book or web page to find out where a word came from. My children are the sad recipients of my logophilic obsession. I am reminded of Mr. Portokalos from My Big Fat Greek Wedding...

Every morning, my dad would lecture us on the "history of our people... the great civilization, the Greeks."

Mr. Portokalos: Now, give me a word... any word... and I show you, how the root of that word... is Greek.

Toula: Sweet Lord, again.

Mr. Portokalos: How about "arachnophobia"? "Arachna," that comes from the Greek word for spider... and "phobia" is a phobia, it means "fear." So, "fear of spiders." There you go.

Girl in backseat: Okay, Mr. Portokalos, how about the word "kimono"?

Mr. Portokalos: "Kimono." Good one... Kimono, kimono... Of course, "kimono" comes from the Greek word... "cheimonas," which means "winter." So, what do you wear in the wintertime... to stay warm? A robe. You see, "robe," "kimono." There you go.

This dialogue, with little embellishment, is me on a road trip of any length with my children. If I am afflicted by a contagion of some sort, it is not a very communicable none as none of my children have yet contracted it.

So it was that last night I was sitting on the couch after dinner and I got that look in my eye. Some of the older children saw it and started volunteering to bathe smaller children or take the trash out. To myself I said, "Gossip is an odd word. I can't break it down along Greek or Latin cognates. Hmmm..." My favorite website in the universe Etymology Online told me the following:

gossip (n.) Old English godsibb "sponsor, godparent," from God + sibb "relative" (see sibling). Extended in Middle English to "a familiar acquaintance, a friend, neighbor" (c. 1300), especially to woman friends invited to attend a birth, later to "anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk" (1560s). Sense extended 1811 to "trifling talk, groundless rumor." Similar formations in Old Norse guðsifja, Old Saxon guþziff

"Wait," I said, "gossips come from godparents?" It seems they do.

As with many words, gossip started meaning one thing and slowly expanded and morphed its meaning into something else entirely. Often words take on pejorative (idiot, nimrod) or sexual (relationship, passion) meanings, but really a word is like clay that gets molded and remolded into new shapes as it goes from one person's hands to another's.

So, we can start with a word talking about a very august position and end up with one of the lowest. In Romans 1 Paul warns people about the wrath of God falling upon those that have given into their passions. He makes quite a list, really, and two of them will echo the modern idea of a gossip quite well; ψιθυριστας (whisperers) and καταλαλους (slanderers [talking back secretly or openly]). The Apostle tells us death is on the heels of such people and also those who take pleasure in others practicing such behavior.

I think we've all been party to some rather juicy gossip. Maybe we've even harkened to the "better angels of our Nature" and listened to the gossip and not spread it ourselves. Much like its linguistic counterpart, gossip starts at a single point and then echoes out in ever expanding waves just as if we had dropped a rock into water. As it expands what was once a limpid mirror of events grows increasingly distorted as the gossip radiates outward. That's how novels turn an innocuous conversation between a young couple into signs of a forbidden tryst, a murderous plot, or witchcraft. By the time a story has been retold a few times the truth of an event looks nothing like the ugly tale tickling everyone's ears.

Gossip, much like the definitions of words, is very difficult to restore to its original state. I can't take the archaic (often my favorite dictionary definition) meaning of a word and ask people to roll back to an older meaning while ignoring the more neologistic uses. Nor can I undo gossip simply by declaring what really happened over all the other chattering voices. The seas have to become calm after a time and only then are things clear enough for the true picture to emerge.

God has entrusted us with many things. We have free will, dominion over creation, and in the case of godparents the spiritual development of others. When our gossip is less about bringing others to Christ (as the word was intended) and more about bringing them down to the muck we have taken His trust in us and spent it on a fleeting diversion. When next we encounter gossip I pray we remember that our role as Church is to tack our ships towards the Kingdom and not spend our time throwing jetsam into the ocean.

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