Toward a Theory of Satire I: Gossip and Slander

  • Melinda Alliker Rabb


This chapter considers the dynamics of verbal attacks through gossip, slander, and libel—three important ways of exposing information, and three modes of discourse with significant relationships to satire. Leo Tolstoy likens gossip to the merry crackle of fire in a hearth; Ferdinando Pulton calls slander a foul puddle oozing from a quagmire. Gossip and slander, both generally derogatory, have critically distinctive etymologies. Gossip derives from god (god) + sibb (kinfolk, the same root as sibling). The medieval godsib “often appeared as a validating witness at infant baptisms … absolutely necessary when, as was often the case, the real father was absent” (Gordon 1988:14). Hints of sex (necessary for pregnancy) and transgression (why is the father absent?) are implicit in the history of the word. Slander, in contrast, derives from the same etymological root as scandal (G. skandalon, L. scandalum, ME sclaundre): a stumbling block or trap. It recalls the injunction against clandestine malice that accompanies the Old Testament ‘golden rule’ (to treat one’s neighbor like oneself): “Thou shalt not place a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus, 19).


Eighteenth Century Seventeenth Century Hate Speech Verbal Attack Etymological Root 
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© Melinda Alliker Rabb 2007

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  • Melinda Alliker Rabb

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