J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Latest

Back in September, my ears perked up at this History News Network article, “Why Historians Can’t Afford to Ignore Gossip.” As a supporter of unabashed gossip, I found the history of that term interesting:
The very definition of gossip has changed over time. In English, the word originated as a noun, “godsibb,” meaning a relative in God, and connoted a godparent or a person in attendance at a christening. By the sixteenth and seventeenth century, however, a new, gender-specific definition of gossip became common: a woman attending a mother at childbirth. At the same time, gossip also became a verb and devalued, as with Dr. Johnson’s 1755 dictionary definition of gossip: “One who runs about tattling like women at a lying-in.” Popular understandings of gossip continue its negative association with women’s talk, but historical evidence shows both women and men engaging in the practice of gossip.

Although contemporary definitions of gossip vary, they all share a concern with the personal and often the private, and, thus, gossip can be identified as “private talk.” Gossip makes private matters public, and, for many, gossip’s most transgressive quality is precisely how it blurs the imaginary yet influential boundary between public and private. For historians, gossip’s boundary-crossing provides us with direct evidence of its existence in the past and the sources necessary to make it a subject of historical inquiry.
The article’s authors, Kathleen A. Feeley of the University of Redlands and Jennifer Frost of the University of Auckland, just co-edited a collection of essays titled When Private Talk Goes Public: Gossip in American History.

Alas, the book doesn’t contain material on the Revolutionary period, though there are articles on the Salem witch hunts, the early eighteenth-century letters of Virginian Philip Ludwell, and the Jacksonian scandalmongering of Anne Royall. Alas also, the book is $95 or more.

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