Here is a minor post about one of the minor pleasures of life: etymology. I realized recently that “a gossip” (as a person) and “une commère”, which are more-or-less translations of each other in French and English, have the same higher-level etymology. In other words, they evolved in the same way from words having the same meaning, that of “godmather”, or “marraine” respectively, although they do not share a common older Latin, or Greek, or other, root (the English word comes from “God” and “sib”, of teutonic origins related to “kin”; the French comes from Latin “co” and “mater”). In English, the forms “Godsibbas”, “godzybbe”, go as far back as the 11th century, but the modern meaning is attested in the OED only from the late 16th century on. In French, the original meaning is seen from the late 12th century, and the modern one from the 14th century.

(I will leave aside any discussion about the historical or psychological insights provided by this parallel evolution of godmather).

There’s not any mathematics in there, of course, except for having decided to look for the relevant information (in the OED and the Grand Robert de la Langue Française, or the Trésor de la langue française, respectively) after discussions with colleagues at ETH where the question arose of the right translation of “gossips” in French. Note that although “commérages” is in a sense obvious, the undercurrents seem to not be quite the same…

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I am a professor of mathematics at ETH Zürich since 2008.

One thought on “Gossip”

  1. an etymological map:
    “Im Atlas der Wahren Namen werden geographische Namen in die deutsche Sprache „übersetzt“ d.h. deren wahre (etymologische) Bedeutung wird anstelle des allgemein bekannten Namens in die Karte eingetragen.”

    “The basic sources of this work are Weekley’s “An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English,” Klein’s “A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language,” “Oxford English Dictionary” (second edition), “Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology,” Holthauzen’s “Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Englischen Sprache,” Ayto’s “20th Century Words,” and hapman’s “Dictionary of American Slang.”

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