How Gossip Works

Catherine the Great
Public domain image
Catherine II was Empress of Russia for 34 years until her death in 1796.

Even if you've never taken a class in 18th century Russian history, you've probably heard the story about Catherine the Great. According to the lore, Catherine II, Empress of Russia, died under questionable circumstances involving a horse. If you ask someone who has a fondness for history or urban legends, though, you'll learn that the story isn't true. Catherine II really died of a stroke, and no horses were present.

The story of Catherine the Great and the horse isn't a recent invention -- it started out as gossip more than 200 years ago. It's not just a juicy story; it's a good illustration of the nature of gossip:

  • It's almost impossible to figure out who told the story first. Historians believe that the French upper class created the rumor in an attempt to destroy Catherine's reputation.
  • It started as a malicious attempt to slander someone and possibly to improve the social standing of the people who made up the story.
  • When people repeat it today, they believe it is true, in spite of its inherent outlandishness.
  • The tale is persistent and widespread. It's stayed around for hundreds of years, and no matter how many historians refute it, people still pass it on.
  • It's the kind of tidbit most people can't help spreading around, even if they've resolved to spend less time gossiping.
  • Even though some of the details might have changed, the core of the story is the same as it was 200 years ago. In this respect, real gossip is different from the "telephone game" often used to teach children about its hazards.

Up Next

However, unlike the story of Catherine II, not all gossip is malicious or untrue. Like swearing, another use of language many people try to avoid, gossip plays a number of roles within social groups, and some of them can actually be useful.

Sociologists, linguists, psychologists and historians are among the people who research gossip and how it functions in society. It's a tricky phenomenon to study, though. People usually gossip spontaneously and in private, so it's almost impossible to study gossip in a laboratory setting. In fact, many researchers study gossip by eavesdropping on gossipers.

In the next section we'll look at the characteristics of gossip.