Gossip: a natural history

February 21, 2009

Show me someone who never gossips, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t interested in people. Barbara Walters

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.  This has sometimes been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but without a definite citation.

The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.  Oscar Wilde

No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.  Bertrand Russell

If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me. Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth


Gossip is all around us. And I don’t just mean housewives chitchatting outside the supermarket, tabloid sex scandals or those awful programmes about celebrities on TV. If you could overhear a group of academics chatting in the staff room, chances are that they would be gossiping about their colleagues rather than discussing the latest research findings or the meaning of life. We are gossip machines. Academic research on conversations show that about two thirds of our conversation time is dedicated to social gossip. This has been replicated throughout the world in many different cultures

       Gossip has not generally had a good press. St. Paul called it a sin against charity. We know about its negative connotations but we enjoy participating in this group nastiness. Many people say that all history is basically well told gossip and it is undoubtedly an important weapon of political power. Does it survive because we get pleasure from scurrilous rumours or does it actually serve a purpose?

        Our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small communities where they knew everyone else face-to-face. They had to cooperate in order to protect themselves against external groups. But they also had to compete for limited resources within their own group. Living under such conditions, it was important to be able to distinguish between a reliable exchange partner and a free rider, find a good mate, and navigate friendships, alliances and family relationships. People who were fascinated with the lives of others would enjoy more success, and it is their genes that have come down to us through the ages. It was those individuals who possessed the ability to evaluate the temperament, predictability and past behaviour of individuals who are personally known to you that had an evolutionary payoff rather than those who were capable of abstract statistical thinking about large numbers of unknown strangers.

What is the function of gossip? If you look on Wikipedia, you will find a list of functions that gossip performs:

  1. normalise and reinforce moral boundaries in a speech-community
  2. foster and build a sense of community with shared interests and information
  3. build structures of social accountability
  4. further mutual social grooming (like many other uses of language, only more so)
  5. provide a mating tool that allows (for example) women to mutually identify socially desirable men and compare notes on which men are better than others.
  6. be used as a form of passive aggression, as a tool to isolate and harm others
  7. provide a peer-to-peer mechanism for disseminating information in organizations.

We seek the type of information that will influence our social standing relative to others. We have a predisposition towards negative news about high-status people and potential rivals because we can exploit this to improve our relative position. We also prefer gossip about members of our own sex and age because they are our natural evolutionary competitors.

 We have this prehistoric mental equipment with which we have to deal with the modern world. Modern technology has completely revolutionised gossip. Gossip has moved away from its local roots to be about people we have never met. Our minds are being bombarded with  this macrogossip and our brains seem incapable of distinguishing between these celebrities and people who really have an impact on our lives. In a fast-moving  somewhat impersonal industrial society, celebrities have become our ersatz friends and acquaintances. They provide a common interest and topic of conversation between neighbours and co-workers, people who otherwise might have little to say to one another.

I have to say that this recent exponential growth of celebrities has passed me by. I can enjoy gossip but in very small doses. I can’t stand those sycophantic Hello stories – The Duke and Duchess of York Grant Us the Most Personal of Interviews and for the First Time Ever Throw Open the Doors of Their Home and Invite Us to Share Their Intimate Family Moments. Pass the sick-bag, please! (In fact there is a phenomenon, known as “the curse of Hello!” – a curse so powerful that the minute a couple appears in Hello!, especially if they are talking about how blissfully happy they are, divorce is inevitable.) I want real scandal, preferably with a bit of sex thrown in.

       There is nothing per se wrong with gossip; it depends on the intention behind it. However I do dislike that censorious gossip particularly that which seeks to condemn other people’s sexual mores. I think that it’s bad but that doesn’t mean I will be able to control my natural curiosity to find out more about the scandal. So the next time you find yourself attracted to some inane story about Paris Hilton or David Beckham, relax and enjoy this guilty pleasure. It’s what makes us human.

Untranslatable words

February 21, 2009

I’ve always loved words like Schadenfreude (for those of you who don’t know, it means delight in another person’s misfortune) which don’t have a simple equivalent in English. Here is a list I have compiled from different websites. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these translations so if anyone sees any inaccuracies, feel free to suggest corrections.


Areodjarekput: To exchange wives for a few days only (Inuit)

Attaccabottoni: A bore who buttonholes people and tells sad, pointless stories. (Italian)

Backpfeifengesicht: A face that cries out for a fist in it. (German)

Bakku-shan: A girl who appears pretty from behind but not from the front. (Japanese)

Buaya darat: A man who fools women into thinking he’s a very faithful lover when in fact he goes out with many different women at the same time – literally, a land crocodile. (Indonesian)

Chaponner: To investigate digitally a chicken’s rear end to see if an egg is about to be laid (French)

Embasan: To wear clothes while taking a bath. (The Maguindanaon language of the Philippines)

Fensterln: for climbing through a window to avoid someone’s parents so you can have sex without them knowing. (German)

Gigi rongak: The space between the teeth. (Malaysian)

Ikibari:  A “lively needle” and describing a man who is willing but under-endowed. (Japanese)

Iktsuarpok:To go outside to check if anyone is coming. (Inuit)

Ilunga: A person who is ready to forgive any transgression a first time and then to tolerate it for a second time, but never for a third time. (The Tshiluba language of the Republic of Congo.)

Jayus: From Indonesian, meaning a joke so poorly told and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.

Kanjus Makkhichus: someone so tight that if a fly falls into their tea they’ll fish it out and suck it dry before throwing it away. (Hindi)

Katahara itai: The action of laughing so much that one side of your abdomen hurts. (Japanese)

Korinthenkacker:  A “raisin pooper” — that is, someone so taken up with life’s trivial detail that they spend all day crapping raisins. (German)

Kyoikumama: A mother who relentlessly pushes her children toward academic achievement. (Japanese)

Lalew: To grieve so much you can’t eat. (Filipino)

Mamihlapinatapei:  A wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start. (Yagan, the indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego region of South America.)

Momma ko ene: Having red eyes from crying over your boyfriend marrying someone else. (Cheyenne)

Nakhur: A camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils are tickled. (Persian)

Nakkele: a man who licks whatever the food has been served on (Tulu).

Nito-onna: A woman so dedicated to her career that she has no time to iron blouses and so resorts to dressing only in knitted tops. (Japanese)

Oka-shete: Waterworks difficulties engendered by eating frogs out of season. (Ndonga language, Namibia)

Okuri-oka-mi: A man who feigns thoughtfulness by offering to see a girl home only to molest her on her own doorstep – literally, a “see-you-home wolf” (Japanese)

Pana po’o: To scratch your head in order to remember something (Hawaiian)

Pesamentiero: Someone who habitually joins mourners at the homes of the deceased to get at the free refreshments. (Portuguese) 

Pisan zapra: The time needed to eat a banana. (Malay)

Poronkusema: The distance a reindeer can travel without taking a comfort break.

Prozvonit:  To call a mobile phone only to have it ring once so that the other person would call back, allowing the caller not to spend money on minutes. (In both Czech and Slovak language)

Putzfimmel: A mania for cleaning. (German)

Puyugaktuq: To approach a sea mammal by crawling along. (Inuit)

Saudade: A feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost. (Brazilian Portuguese)

Scheissenbedauern: The disappointment one feels when something turns out not nearly as badly as one had expected. (German)

Schlimmbesserung: a so-called improvement that makes things worse. (German)

Seigneur-terrasse: A person who spends much time but little money in a cafe (literally: a terrace lord) (French) 

Sjostygg: Someone so ugly the tide refuses to come in if they stand on the shore. (Norwegian)

Stroitel: A man who likes to have sex with two women at the same time. (Russian)

Tantenverführer: A young man whose excessively good intentions suggest suspicious motives. (literally aunt-seducer) (German)

Tingo: The act of taking objects one desires from the house of a friend by gradually borrowing all of them. (The Pascuense language of Easter Island),

Tlazlimquiztli: The smell of adulterers. (Aztec)

Torschlusspanik: The fear of diminishing opportunities as one gets older (literally: gate-closing panic), often applied to women worried about being too old to have children. (German) 

Uitwaaien: Walking in windy weather for fun. (Dutch)

Yubisakibijin: One who spends rather too much of her salary having her fingernails done. (Japanese)


My media week 22/02/09

February 21, 2009

The ABC Radio National programme Background Briefing has a programme this Sunday about the role the media should pay in the global economic meltdown.


Naomi Klein denounced shock capitalism in her bestseller The Shock Doctrine but as libertarian David Boaz points out in this provocative Cato podcast on February seventeenth the current crisis is also being used by the Obama administration to expand their powers. Left-leaning figures such as Paul Krugman and Klein herself have said that this crisis is an opportunity to transform American society.


Denis Dutton looks at how genetic programming affects our aesthetic tastes in this article.


I always enjoy Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in The Guardian, especially when he satirises the Daily Mail’s “ongoing project to divide all the inanimate objects in the world into ones that either cause or cure cancer”. (This week the Mail ran “How Using Facebook Could Raise Your Risk of Cancer.”) However, this week he looks at how the newspapers report heroin seizures.


Finally a couple of humorous pieces: The Daily Mash referring to the recent story of a 13- year old father has  Twelve Year-Olds Urged To Knock-Up Local Tart and The Onion has Nation’s Blacks Creeped Out By All The People Smiling At Them

My favourite links #29

February 21, 2009

One of the teachers at IH Tom uses www.travelpod.com  to post accounts of his travels. He has been to 14 countries and has four separate blogs:

Western Illinois University – the funniest five months of my life!  Aug 07, 2001 to Dec 19, 2001 

Road Trip: California and beyond Dec 28, 2004 to Jan 20, 2005

Yemen – poor in oil-wealth, rich in culture… a forgotten jewel in the sun-drenched Arabian crown. Oct 13, 2005 to Dec 22, 2006

My Arabian Odyssey – learning Arabic, separating people from politics and dispelling myths in the heart of the Middle East  Feb 22, 2007 to Jul 19, 2008

I can recommend an article about a bus journey from hell in Yemen.

Here is the place to go: