A Little Tea and Gossip, Robert Payton Reid, 1859
Cream Tea Day
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
"A little gossip, a little chat
A little idle talk of this and that
If no one listens then it's just as well
At least I won't get caught in any lies I tell"
~ A Little Gossip, The Man of La Mancha, 1965
What better accompaniment with a Cream Tea than a little gossip? The ‘invention’ of this quintessentially British refreshment is attributed to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, who decided she needed to eat something light to combat ‘that sinking feeling’ she experienced mid-afternoon. Whilst this routine began as a private affair for the Duchess, she soon started inviting her friends to join her for tea and gossip about the latest scandal. The ritual caught on and was adopted by the fashionable upper classes of London society. The word gossip tends to have a negative connotations, but evolved from the Old English term, godsibb, recorded sometime around 1014, meaning "a child’s godparent or sponsor at a baptism." Over time, and after a number of spelling changes, gossip came to mean "a good friend, usually a woman." By the 1500s, the word was mostly used for "idle chatter and rumor," as well as to describe the women who gathered to help in the birth of a baby. But by the mid-1800s, gossip was used as both noun and verb, again meaning "idle chatter and rumor." Although the Scots "blether" is more in line with simiply "having a chat", the words "clatter" or the noun "clattern" (meaning to gossip or chatter on) or even "clishmaclaver" (for an idle chat) can both refer to a bit of gossip, which always help liven up a teatime. At any rate, all of these terms are better than "quidnunc" - a gossip-themed term meaning "a person of idle chatter - but usually referring to one with outdated news." Pass the jam and tell me the latest! 🍵 🍰 🍓
The Auld Blether
Today is International Cream Tea Day! Time for tea and gossip and talking nonsense, the auld blether. Blether, a variant of the word blather is from the Old Norse blathra, from a word for nonsense.
In colloquial terms, the word blether means a lengthy chat between friends. When applied to a person, blether is also a term for a gossip, a chatterbox, or someone who talks a lot of nonsense. A bletherer can also be someone who is prone to boasting and exaggeration. With roots as far back as the 15th century, blether has featured regularly in Scottish literature.
Sexist or not, and ignoring the fact that men gossip as much as women (according to a recent study) almost from the time tea was popularized in Britain in the 1600s, tea drinking has been synonymous with female blether and tittle-tattle!
Old dictionaries of English slang provide colourful proof of this association, especially Francis Grose's 1785 opus, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Tea has numerous entries in Grose's dictionary. Among other things, it is called "prattle broth," "chatter broth," "scandal broth," and "cat lap."
A year after Grose's dictionary was published, a variation of the term "scandal broth" appeared in Scotsman Robert Burns' poem, The Twa Dogs: A Tale, in a stanza parodying society ladies who pretend to be as gracious as sisters, but think spiteful thoughts as they "sip the scandal-potion pretty."
For a video of the dance from RSCDS Sheffield, see below.
And for more on the association of tea with "delightful gossip" (including many more vulgar terms than mentioned here), click the painting of Afternoon Tea for Three by Frederic Soulacroix (1858 -1933).
As US President Teddy Roosevelt's daughter Alice Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously quipped, “If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody come sit next to me.”