Spinning Stories

Laundry and Gossip in German by ebutterworth
September 3, 2009, 8:33 am
Filed under: Storytelling, Uncategorized

The etymology of gossip in German (Klatsch) suggests an intriguing connection with laundry, as well as reinforcing yet again the traditional link between gossip and women.

While a ‘gossip’ in English was originally a godparent, Klatsch has a more diffuse and even physical origin. It means at least three things: (1) ‘a resounding slap’, a kind of onomatopoeia; (2) a stain; (3) a pejorative word for prattle, typical of women’s conversation. These three meanings come together in the image of the communal laundry: washerwomen beat at their linen, washing and scrubbing away stains, while exchanging news, views and opinions on their neighbours. The dirty clothes retain the bodily dirt of their owner, so, in washing, washerwomen publicly reveal private and intimate secrets – stains, holes, worn-out places. They are in a privileged position to acquire morally dubious information about the laundry’s owners – hidden information about their private affairs – along with the power and opportunity to disseminate this information. The ‘resounding slap’ of their tools (mallets, mangles, scrubbing boards) signal to the rest of the neighbourhood what is going on: not just the washing of dirty linen, but the exchange of (dirty?) secrets. This privileged access to private information may well have appeared threatening to those not privy to it (especially men?)

The communal laundry appears in this image as the perfect place to reveal secrets about absent neighbours, and to discuss interpretations, memories and comments. The laundry is also a picture of the unequal distribution of power in gossip: not everyone has access to the places in which this kind of knowledge is exchanged.

Women have traditionally had easier access to these kind of places because of the division of labour between the sexes. This might help explain why women are also traditionally branded ‘gossips’, even if men and women are no different in their actual production of and participation in gossip.

(Jörg R. Bergman. Discreet Indiscretions: The Social Organization of Gossip, 1993)


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