Small towns are notorious for it. It can spread faster than a pat of butter on a hot biscuit. It can be funny or hurtful, friendly or mean, true as true can be or bald-faced lies. It’s repercussions can last for just a hot minute or for years and years and years.
What is this seductive siren song that draws in even the most prim and proper?
Gossip — the scoop, the skinny, back-fence talk, scuttlebutt.
And there are several idioms that address this idle chit-chat. As far as I can tell, they break down into three categories: how you hear it, how you tell it, and how you keep it under wraps when you’ve heard it but are sworn to secrecy.
Let’s start with the hearing it part:
A little bird told me. A nosy little bird! Use this one when you don’t want to reveal your source(s). A little bird told me Glory’s husband was seen with Maybelle down to the local watering hole…If she knew, she’d shit twice and die!
I heard it through the grapevine. Made famous by Marvin Gaye, this saying may actually date back to the Civil War. It may have referenced different colored clothes hung out to dry on clotheslines that could have been made from grapevines which signified different coded messages along the Underground Railroad. Or it could refer to early telegraph lines which were strung loosely between trees instead of poles, drooped like vines, and were notoriously unreliable. I heard through the grapevine that Brother Eustace was giving Clara the reach around at the covered dish dinner the other Sunday … and she didn’t even mind it!
A fly on the wall. When you want to be an unnoticed witness to something, you wish you were a tiny bug. A tiny bug in an out of-the-way place. I wish I’d been a fly on the wall when Marjean told the whole Sunday School class that Della got her fried chicken from the gas station and just put it on her own platter for the homecoming dinner on the grounds. I bet Della could’ve killed her on the spot!
And here’s how you tell it or get it told to you:
Between you, me, and the fence post (gatepost or bedpost). Obviously the fence post isn’t going to tell any tales, and your companion shouldn’t either. If you don’t want it spread all over town that you told what you shouldn’t’ve told to someone who shouldn’t know the story in the first place, start with this one. It also signifies to your listener that they’re fixing to hear something juicy! Between you, me, and the fencepost, I think Vera would date anybody who could fog a mirror. You know she went out with Marvin last weekend, and everybody knows he’s a bubble off plumb.
Spill the beans! Or just Spill it! When you know your friend is holding back on dishing the real dirt, this is a way to get her to come clean. It’s the equivalent of “do tell!” Sister, spill the beans! I heard that Delbert drove you home from choir practice Wednesday night, and it don’t take an hour to go a mile!
Let the cat out of the bag. Cats don’t like to be trapped, and that’s what it feels like to know something that just needs to be told — like you’ve got a mad cat hemmed up in a sack and he’s trying to scratch and claw his way out. Laverne sure let the cat out of the bag when she congratulated Flo on getting engaged before Roy even proposed!
And while you might tell other folk’s bidness, your mama just might wear you out if you tell your own family’s. That’s called airing your dirty laundry, and nice people don’t do it. Which is where the next few sayings come in.
Here’s how to keep all the dirt a secret … if you can.
Bite your tongue! Sometimes you just have to so you don’t tell. This one can also be an expression of disbelief too. Q: Did you hear Janice wore a white dress to the Easter service with no slip? You could practically see her religion. A. Bite your tongue! She should know better!
Keep it under your hat. Your head is under your hat, and in your head is where you should keep a secret. But Abraham Lincoln might also have helped this saying into common usage due to his habit of stashing important, confidential documents inside his signature stovepipe hat. I’ll tell you what Ramona’s secret potato salad ingredient is, but you’d better keep it under your hat. She’d kill me if she knew I blabbed it!