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Are the words gossip and rumour perfect synonyms or is there a fine distinction between them? The only difference I'm aware of is that the second one is spelled differently in British and American English.

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Except for maybe when new or rare words are involved, there's really no such thing as "perfect synonyms" - only words which in some particular context are interchangeable. These two words have been around a long time, and are both quite common. Unsurprisingly, they have many differences, both grammatical and semantic. –  FumbleFingers Feb 14 '12 at 17:20
    
@FumbleFingers: I agree. It just occurred to me that even words with the same meaning in specific context are only ostensibly the same words, especially when they have distinct origins. –  falconepl Feb 17 '12 at 11:32
    
Rumour has it that the words "anyone" and "anybody", "someone" and "somebody" and "no-one" and "nobody" are perfect synonyms — but that may merely be gossip. –  user25352 Aug 26 '12 at 9:01
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gossip vs rumour –  Matt Эллен Aug 29 '12 at 9:11

3 Answers 3

I'd say that rumor (as I spell it), like report or story, is a word denoting a particular type of narrative. This shows up in many constructions:

  • It was reported that all lives were lost.
  • It was rumored that all lives were lost.
  • The story that she left him is untrue.
  • The rumor that she left him is untrue.

It's not so much the spreading of the rumor, or the actual talking or writing, that rumor refers to; rather, it's the fact that there is talk, and more importantly, what the content of that talk is.

Gossip, on the other hand, denotes the social activity, and its participants, and their motives, and their strategies and tactics. The actual content of the talk is secondary to its perceived import, trajectory, and impact.

The nominalizations are telling: A gossip is a person -- A rumor is a story.

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'Gossip' is also the information transmitted. But it is not necessarily one story (like 'rumor', but is rather a mass noun like 'traffic' (there can be many rumors about a person, but it is all gossip). –  Mitch Feb 14 '12 at 17:03
    
Yes, there's another distinction. Gossip referring to content is a mass noun, while rumor is a count noun. There's also a mass sense of rumor in the idiom Rumor has it that S, referring to the indefinite integral over all gossip of rumors about S. Plus a constant, of course. –  John Lawler Feb 14 '12 at 17:59

You can think of gossip as a particular case of rumor. Rumor is defined by dictionary.com as

a story or statement in general circulation without confirmation or certainty as to facts

Gossip, on the other hand, is defined as

idle talk or rumor, especially about the personal or private affairs of others (emphasis mine)

and usually has negative connotation.

For example,

Charles had bought along his hard redheaded wife Norma, and she was busy swapping malicious gossip with Emily.

The word rumor in the sentence above would be inappropriate. And here's an example of a sentence where gossip would be inappropriate:

Rumors of war were sweeping the country in the spring

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+1 for the social aspect of gossip. Often rumour is spread by written word, but gossip needs somewhere spoken word - or possibly, today, chat networks. –  Schroedingers Cat Feb 14 '12 at 16:15
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I disagree: 'gossip' is not a particular case of 'rumor'. Maybe 'rumors'. –  Mitch Feb 14 '12 at 18:12
    
@Mitch: Of course it's not. It's a human language, not math! :) –  Armen Ծիրունյան Feb 14 '12 at 20:20
    
Perhaps the connection between gossip and rumor is the adage, "History is gossip that ages well." –  Hexagon Tiling Feb 15 '12 at 12:39

I basically agree with Armen, but let me say it slightly differently:

A "rumor" is an unconfirmed story about any subject. "Gossip" is talk about other people's personal affairs. To some extent you could say that gossip is a subset of rumors. You could spread rumors that Al and Betty are having an affair, and you could spread gossip that Al and Betty are having an affair. But while you could spread rumors that the company is planning a layoff or that Senator Jones is considering running for president or that aliens are kidnapping people, you wouldn't normally call these things "gossip" as they aren't related to people's personal, private lives.

Also note that there are differences in how the words are used.

When used as a verb, "gossip" means to tell such stories. "Sally gossiped about the neighbors." "Rumor" as a verb is almost always preceded by "it is", as in, "It is rumored that the company is planning a layoff." You WOULDN'T say, "Bob rumors a lot."

"Gossip" can also be a collective noun referring to this type of story in general, like, "This so-called newspaper has more gossip than news." It can also refer to stories about a particular subject, but again is used as a collective noun. "There is a lot of gossip around town that Charlie is drinking again." When used as a countable noun "gossip" refers to a person: "She was a notorious gossip."

"Rumor" as a noun is countable, i.e. it is preceded by an article or indication of number. "There is a rumor that ..." "He spread many rumors." "I heard two rumors today ..."

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+1: Although I am disappointed you didn't mention my favorite expression "Rumor has it, ..." :) –  Armen Ծիրունյան Feb 14 '12 at 16:15
    
Good point. I guess there "rumor" is being used as a collective noun, but like "it is rumored", it is a very specific idiom. No one ever says, "Yesterday the rumor had it that ..." or "Rumor can have ..." –  Jay Feb 14 '12 at 16:40

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