A thousand years ago, the word was godsibb—in the same sense that one could have a godmother, one had god-siblings; hence, six hundred years ago, a gossip was a close friend. Communication carried on by friends outside the formal power structure posed enough of a threat that in the 19th century the powerful redefined it as idle chatter or unconfirmed speculation. Thus men deride women’s gossip, which can undermine patriarchal authority; employers prohibit gossip, in which people are judged according to criteria other than how much revenue they bring in; and monotheistic religions classify gossip as a sin alongside pride and deceit.

Of course, the original function of gossip presupposed consistent and meaningful social ties. In the absence of those (see World Wide Web), it produces all sorts of bizarre effects.