Gnomicon 273

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  273
Saturday 9 February 2013
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Show me someone who never gossips,
and I will show you someone who is not interested in people.
Barbara Walters (25 Sep 1929 –  )

Well, there’s interest and there’s interest!

One of the most commonly quoted lines from Latin poetry simultaneously means the exact opposite of what the pseudo intellect citing it mistakenly assumes.  I speak of these words spoken by the character Chremes, a hopeless gossip and busybody, in the play Heauton timoroumenos of the playwright Terence (195 – 159 BCE):

homo sum:  humani nil a me alienum puto.

I’m human, and nothing humans do do I consider none of my business.

 Seeing this endlessly repeated misapplication repeated like some mindless meme and glibly trotted out by semi-literate poseurs to prove pretty much the opposite of what it intends prompted me a while back to devote a few words to that embarrassing repetition compulsion: before proceeding, please do have a look here, and by all means use the line — but use it correctly!

But, back …

I don’t necessarily disagree with the sentiment this princess of the gossips puts forth, even if one could read it as something of a self-justificatory stroking of her own life’s wordy work just to hear it purr.

What, first of all, is ‘gossip’?

A foundational sense (OED) is that of someone “who has contracted spiritual affinity with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism”, and from that distant beginning the term takes a long and interesting semantic journey through the branching byways of North Germanic’s Old English, Old Norse and Old Swedish to medieval English and on to a “familiar acquaintance, friend, chum; female friend invited to be present at a birth” and on to “idle talk; trifling or groundless rumour; tittle- tattle” or a person who engages in such conversation.  The original godsibb (>> gossip) is a ‘kind of’ [in case you are interested] bahuvrihi compound whose first element is transparent enough, and whose second refers to some kind of relationship by blood or kin (cf. modern English ‘sib ling’) – thus. godsibb ‘relationship to god, god-related’.  Thus, again, the OED.

Or – vernacularly — gossip is just divine, as in the divine Mss Behar, Goldberg, Walters, et  aliae on The View, that ultimate in self-indulgent and free-wheeling gossip with its Chremes-like curiosity about the lives of the forever famous, the high and mighty, the fleetingly famous.  OK – well and good that!

I may adopt at times a stance of supercilious mockery over people’s tendency ‘out there’ to gossip endlessly and even maliciously about strangers and friends, about  friend and foe alike, and lift my refined brow in furrowed disapproval of such jejune goings-on.  How can people lower themselves to the vapid preoccupation with such drivel?

It’s probably something inherent in our genes, perhaps something Darwinian about the survival value of knowing as much as you can about what you may run into out there away from the cave.  Something like, “Knowledge is Power” (national spy agencies are but cranked-up version of this paranoid prophylactic).  And there surely is a certain entertainment value to knowing this and that about someone that someone else does not – again, from the Darwinian angle, you are now part of the ‘in’ group and no longer on the out and out.  I mean, we all want to ‘belong’, right — from the time of that very first playground game where we did not get picked (by either side)?

So, I can’t really pretend that I’m above tawdry diversions like gossip, and I do have a pretty good idea of – as I just asked above — how people can lower themselves to the vapid preoccupation with such drivel.

After all, I used to spend a lot of time with in the cannibalistic ecology of a university academic department – than among some of whose very clever Ph.D.s you will rarely find a more developed relish for endless gossip about the real and the fake, the false and the true, the ins, the outs, the whos, the whats, the wheres, the whys, the whens …

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