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Politics can be viewed as a war of words: claims, counter-claims, verbal attacks, lies, half-truths, talking points, shouting, and innuendo. Sometimes political campaigns engage in gossip in order to create havoc in the opposition. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it has unforeseen consequences.

Gossip:

Today we usually think about gossip as a form of idle talk (true or imagined) about friends or acquaintances. This is not, of course, what gossip originally meant. Gossip comes to us from the Old English “godsibb” which came from “god” meaning “God” and “sibb” meaning “relative.” In Old English, “godsibb” meant “sponsor or godparent.” In other words, godsibbs were the sponsors of children at Christian baptisms.

As Old English evolved into Middle English, the meaning of “godsibb” was extended to “any familiar acquaintance,” particularly women friends who had been invited to attend a birth. By the 1560s, it had become “gossip” and referred to “anyone engaging in familiar or idle talk.” About 1811, its meaning was extended to “trifling talk, groundless rumor.”

The noun “gossip” was also used as a verb meaning “to talk idly about the affairs of others” by about 1620.

Havoc:

In the world of American politics, gossip is often used as a tool for raising havoc with the opposition’s campaign. “Havoc” came into English from Norman French where it functioned as a war cry: a signal meaning that the warriors could attack and plunder indiscriminately. The cry “havoc” meant that there was to be no mercy.

The etymology of “havoc” shows that it comes from the Old French “havot” meaning “pillaging, looting” and is related to the verb “haver” meaning “to seize, grasp.” This may have come from the Latin verb “habere” meaning “to have, possess.”

Hoist by one’s own petard:

Sometimes political plans to raise havoc with the opposition’s campaign don’t work and may, in fact, backfire creating problems for those who initially planned the havoc. When someone has become a victim of their own plans to do harm to others, it is sometimes said that they “have been hoisted by their own petard.” I suspect that most modern English speakers, while understanding the sentiment in this phrase, don’t know what a petard is.

During Europe’s medieval period that was a lot of warfare that involved attacking castles. Since castles tended to be well fortified with high, sturdy walls and solid gates, gaining entrance could be a problem for the attackers. One popular way to breach the castle’s gates was to use a petard: this was a kind of explosive device. This meant placing the device, made from gunpowder, near the gate and lighting the fuse. Fuses, like the explosive device itself, could be a bit finicky and thus it was not uncommon for the petard to explode prematurely. When the explosion came too soon, the man laying it might be blown into the air—hoisted by his own petard.

With regard to etymology, “petard” came into English about 1590 from the French “petard,” which came from the Middle French “péter” meaning “break wind,” which, in turn, came from the Old French “pet,” meaning “a fart.” Going back farther in time, this came from the Proto-Indo-European “*pezd-” meaning “to fart.”

The phrase “hoist with one’s petard” became popular in English through the play Hamlet written by William Shakespeare.

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