As one pandemic arrives at a manageable plateau, so another follows behind it. Wearing a mask won’t protect you. There is no vaccine coming to flatten the curve. Hands. Face. Slander. It is 2022 and it is gossip that is spreading fast and wild.
I realised this earlier this month, when I connected with friends to watch the FA Cup Final. Despite being goalless until the arrival of penalties, it was a fascinating match. Few wanted to talk about football unless it was related to the Wagatha Christie trial. Everybody, without exception, wanted to discuss the minutia of the Amber Heard vs. Johnny Depp court case that had further polluted social media. Nobody cared about who lifted English football’s most famous trophy. A few people made fun of Jack Grealish’s bouncy and lustrous hair. I might have been one of them. Jealousy is a pox.
Humans are hardwired to tittle tattle. The word itself has been kicking around ever since the mid-5th century, though its origins are relatively innocent. The Old English term for the godparents of one’s child is ‘godsibb’, and who talks more than family? And yet by the 16th century, the word picked up nefarious connotations, it normally being applied to a woman who engaged in idle talk. In 1623 Shakespeare used ‘gossip’ as a transitive verb (“with a world of pretty, fond, adoptious christendoms, that blinking Cupid gossips”) in his play All’s Well That Ends Well.
From just £3 per week
You might argue that to gossip is to be human, and perhaps the very reason why our species has travailed from swamp to star. The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes so, arguing that gossip originated as early groups of humans swelled in size. “Gossip,” says Dunbar, “is a vital part of human life.”
“The new linguistic skills that modern humans acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands,” he says. “Gossip allows us to pass on vital information about who to trust and helps us bond.”
Dunbar also believes that gossip serves a function much like social grooming does in other primates. Remember that next time you find out that someone has being saying mean things about you. It can’t be worse than them picking nits out of your hair, right?