What a wonderful word

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 22 Aug 2023


Can you ever imagine life without words? Words help us express our thoughts and feelings. They have energy and power. They have the ability to help and heal. They also can hurt or harm. One word can make or break a life.

Words are the most powerful force available to humanity. This force can be constructive or destructive. Words of love, hate, anger, and happiness have a great impact on our lives. That is why we need to “watch our words”.

How many among us make sure they speak words of truth before they are spoken? Rumours and lies are spoken every second without heed to their validity. Unfortunately, lies move faster than the truth. It has been said that, “a lie can travel the world and back again, while truth is still lacing up its boots.”

Words are wonderful things, they are “as sweet as the bees’ fresh honey; like bees they have terrible stings.”

Words can inspire; they can also destroy. We must choose well when we use them. Every word creates an impact.

We hear so much nowadays about scandals concerning the former president of the US as well as the residing president and we cannot help repeating what is being said in every media, being shocked by the content, be it truth or lies.

 We simply enjoy engaging in gossip.

“Gossip” was once a good word, derived from the Old English word “god-sibb” or “god-parent”, “a term given to a woman’s close female friend after the birth of her child, reflecting a powerful bond between them.” Somewhere along the way it gained a bad connotation. We think of gossip as simply “bad behaviour”.

Negative gossip does great harm, erodes trust, and encourages lies.

From the 17th to the early 19th century, the meaning referred to someone engaged in “idle talk” and “idle talk” is the devil’s mouthpiece. The word went from having a divine connotation to having an insulting history.

Gossip is a terrible thing; it can damage and destroy the victim as well as the one who indulges in it. We only need the use of words with or without ulterior motive. The tongue can emit fire and acid that is all-consuming, that cannot be extinguished, causing grief, despair, heartache, anger, divorce, and murder. It can also ruin the careers of great men and women.

What virtue has gossip? Our immediate answer is none. It builds no character, solves no problems, heals no wound, creates no friend.

Modern psychologists have a different view of the classical meaning of gossip. They have elevated its status to a natural, human, social activity, essential for our very survival. In his book, Gossip: The Inside Scoop, psychologist Jack Levin states: “For a real understanding of our social environment, gossip is essential”. It sets the boundaries of social behaviour, the rules which we are to abide by. We all need to learn the unwritten rules of our society, gossip helps us discover, transmit and reinforce those rules. Gossip shepherds the herd. It tells us when we have crossed those boundaries.

Why then do we indulge and glory in vulgar rhapsodies of this sinister act? Because by nature, we are snoops and chatterers, young and old, males and females.

Yes indeed, men gossip to. Do not condemn women alone as has been done throughout history. Men like to call it “shop talk”, but it is pure gossip and with the advent of space technology, they do most of it on their mobile phones, 33 per cent of men indulge in mobile gossip every day vs 26 per cent of women. The subjects are almost the same with more emphasis on sports and politics for men.

Research on human conversation shows that two-thirds of gossip is devoted to social topics, personal relations, and personal problems. It was surprising to learn that only five per cent of our gossip is negative. We gossip mostly about our friends and people around us, celebrities in high places, such as movie stars, athletes, and politicians. While Harry and Megan weary us, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, (Bennifer), do not — yet.

Gossip has been described by scientists as equivalent to grooming among primates. It does what primatologists have long claimed, what grooming does for baboons. While mutual grooming of primates stimulates production of endorphins (the body’s natural pain-killer opiate), it is highly likely that the vocal grooming of gossiping has similar beneficial, physical and psychological effects, increasing serotonin in the brain. By gossiping we may be giving ourselves the natural equivalent of small doses of morphine or amphetamine.

The subject of gossip has increasingly attracted the scientific community — social and evolutionary psychology, anthropology, psychology, linguists, and social historians. Even philosophers have been drawn into the debate. Oxford University offered an academic course on gossip. Attendance reached its maximum.

With all the present studies emphasising the beneficial effects of gossip, let us not be tempted to dismiss its malicious dark side.

There is no denying that the spread of social media gossip has not been of benefit, especially to our student population.

All religions scorn it, regardless of endorphins. Gossip tends to have a boomerang force, especially when it is negative.

Whatever the scientific theory, we gossip because we enjoy it. However, just as we must watch our words, “judge not that ye be not judged”.

Let’s face it, gossip is fun, but always remember words can be fatal weapons.


“And all who told it added something new/And all who heard it made enlargements too.”

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)     

* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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