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Where does the word ‘gossip’ come from – and what has it got to do with childbirth?

Nowadays to ‘gossip’ means to make idle talk or spread rumours, but this hasn’t always been the case. Speaking on a recent episode of the HistoryExtra podcast, Professor Mary Fissell told us more about the word’s surprising roots…

An illustration depicting a woman lying in bed who has recently given birth to twins. Other women busy themselves with tasks around her, such as stoking a fire and holding one of the babies.
Published: March 14, 2022 at 9:00 am
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The word ‘gossip’ has its origins in the birthing room of the pre-modern Atlantic world. Ideally, midwives were responsible for delivering children; these were generally older women who had trained under another midwife and had already experienced childbirth themselves. But a mother-to-be often invited a small group of women – including close friends and female family members – to support her through the birthing process. These women were known as the ‘gossips’.

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When labour started a call went out to summon the midwife and gossips. They would have prepared the birthing room to ensure the relative comfort of the woman and her new child, covering the windows to darken the room, stoking the fire and preparing the bed or birthing chair. Their tasks often included making a special drink for the new mother-to be, called ‘caudle’. Usually made of warmed wine or ale mixed with spices, sugar and oats, caudle was a strengthening and sustaining drink made specially for the occasion. When the preparations were complete, the gossips then waited out the baby’s arrival. In some cases, they even stepped in to deliver the baby when a midwife couldn’t be present.

“The modern meaning of the word ‘gossip’ comes from the fact that men imagined women were telling stories and spreading rumours about them during those long hours of labour,” says Professor Mary Fissell. “It’s very revealing that the word ‘gossip’ has come to be associated with salacious tittle tattle. I think it tells you a lot more about men's imaginations at the time than it does about the actual conversations women may have had.”

Mary Fissell is professor in the Department of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, with appointments in the history of science and the history departments. She was talking to Ellie Cawthorne, HistoryExtra podcast editor. Words by Emily Briffett, HistoryExtra podcast assistant


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Professor Mary Fissell unearths the history of women’s reproductive health in the pre-modern Atlantic world, including menstruation, fertility and childbirth

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Authors

Emily BriffettPodcast editorial assistant

Emily is HistoryExtra’s podcast editorial assistant. Before joining the BBC History team in 2021, Emily graduated with an MA in Public History from Royal Holloway, University of London

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