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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 32

VII.—Sib, Gossip

VII.—Sib, Gossip.

The word sib has long since passed out of the literary language of England, as well as out of our cultivated speech; but it still lurks in the popular dialects of the northern counties, and is a household word in Scotland to the present day. The primary signification of the word in Saxon-English was peace. It then came to mean concord, alliance, companionship, and relation. It is in the latter sense that it is used in Scotland. The readers of the Antiquary may remember the interview between Elspeth and Lord Glenallen, in which she explains the fraud practised on him, in making him believe that his marriage with Miss Neville would be incestuous, as being within the prohibited degrees of relationship. Elspeth describes her conversation with Glenallen's mother, who observed : "By the religion of our holy church, they are ower sibb thegither, but I expect nothing but that both will become hereticks as well as disobedient reprobates." Whereupon Elspeth represents herself of having suggested that they might be brought to think themselves sae sibb, as no Christian law will permit their marriage.

Halliwell says that sib or syb is still in use in Lincolnshire and Cheshire. "He is sib to us"—i.e., he is our cousin; "no sole sib'd"—i.e., in no wise related. I have myself heard it in Yorkshire.

The word lies embedded in our word gossip, which, however, has suffered a considerable change of meaning. Gossip (originally gos-sib and god-sib) stood for sponsors, male and female—i.e., god- page 29 fathers and godmothers. "There was formerly considered," says Halliwell, "a kind of relationship between a person and his sponsors expressed by the word gossip-lede."

Verstegan says : "Our Christian ancestors, understanding a spiritual affinity to grow up between the parents and such as undertook for the child at baptism, called each other by the name of God-sib, which was as much as to say that they were sib together—that is, of kin, through God." (Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, Chap. 7.)

Gossip was also used as a familiar word to designate a person in friendly intercourse with the speaker. It has, however, in modern times entirely lost its original meanings, and is now used dyslogistically to designate a garrulous person or idle chatterer, and is more frequently applied to women than to men. Sometimes it means a familiar talk, as : "I had a long gossip with him."

As gossip, gos-sib, god-sib is a god-relative, so gos-sone is a god-son. This is the true origin of the Anglo-Irish word gossoon—a familiar and kindly way of addressing a lad. Although Mrs. Sidney Hall chooses to spell it gor-soon, it has really no affinity to the French word garçon, as some have supposed, from mere resemblance in sound—a very untrustworthy test of the etymology of a word; but is really our old English word gos-sone in a very slightly changed form.

In the "Saxon Chronicle" (A.D. 894) occurs the word compœder, which is the Latin word compater. Several of these ecclesiastical words had crept into the language long before the Norman Conquest. In French, formerly the words compère and commère meant the relationship between the natural parents and the God-parents of the child—quasi coram Deo affinis. But compère and commère have suffered as much change of meaning as gossip. I am indebted to Mr. Earle's note to A.D. 894 of his edition of the "Saxon Chronicle" for the following illustrations of the convertibility of gossip and commère (Scotch, comer or cummer) :—

"Mary Queen of Scots, writing to the Constable Montmorenci, begins 'mon compère, in which case Miss Strickland says it was merely a term of familiarity (such as gossip became in James the First's reign.) However, we find the feminine still in use in a letter of Melville to Queen Elizabeth, asking her to be gossip at the baptism of Mary's infant son, James. 'For,' says he, 'in England they call the comers (cummers = commères) gossips."