“It’s just a rumor that was spread around town,” opens the chorus of Elvis Costello’s elegiac 1982 song “Shipbuilding,” best known in its rendition by Robert Wyatt: The shipyard will soon reopen, for a war is starting, and British boys will soon be “diving for dear life / when we could be diving for pearls.”
The rumor of which Wyatt and Costello sang turned out to be true. Ships were built and sailed, British troops landed on the Falkland Islands, blood was shed. Rumors are always afoot, often connecting external issues to our lives: The whole shipping department is going to be outsourced; our relief pitcher is going to be traded; a certain politician did a certain something with a certain someone while on a trip overseas.
The word rumor connects distantly to the rumble of thunder, a deep roar from afar. Though speculative, rumors have a basis in what is real. “The quiddity of ‘rumor’ is the subtlest emanation of a fact that is always true in essence,” wrote the eccentric Soviet fabulist Alexander Grin, who lived in a time and place where rumor replaced open discourse and the free flow of ideas. It’s for that reason that, while we don’t much observe the distinction today, earlier generations called misinformation a “false rumor,” while a rumor plain and simple was assumed to have some roots in reality. Even if unsubstantiated at the moment, the thought was that eventually a rumor would be proven and amplified by reality, making it a station on the path to the truth of a matter.
Whether true or false, gossip has always been regarded as the tawdry cousin of rumor. Its very name contains gendered disparagement: In Old English, a godsibb was a woman who attended the birth of a friend’s baby and often served afterward as the godmother. The talk between such women could never be as important as that between men, it seems, and so gossip came to mean not the talk of two women sharing a life-altering (and life-bestowing) moment, but instead idle chatter, as when the Apostle Paul contemptuously accused certain young widows of being “gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not.”
Women gossip, in the minds of the elder patriarchy, while men converse. But no: Gossip is a form of what might be called social information, news of a minor sort, not necessarily as well grounded in fact as rumor but news all the same. “How many times have I told people that Pearl Kazin was a major girlfriend of Dylan Thomas? That Norman Mailer has orgies?” So fretted Susan Sontag in her diary. But that’s the sort of tattling from which confidences are formed: I am certain that you will repeat a rumor, which is as it should be, but can I trust you to keep secret this juicy bit of gossip I’m about to tell you? If so, then you are my friend and my partner in the realm of the unproven, conjecturing about which is valuable in building and maintaining social bonds, a central task in the job of being human.