Pregnant Barbers

Last October, The Sun published an outraged sally against the EU and its latest ‘barmy’ meddling in British business practice. This time, The Sun reported, ‘They get their claws in salons’, threatening legislation that would force hairdressers to wear non-slip soles, leave their jewellery at home, and gossip with their clients for their ‘mental wellbeing’.

The association of hair-cutting and gossip is an ancient one that goes back at least to the time of Plutarch (first century CE). Plutarch explains the tendency of barbers to gossip with the number of idle and talkative men who hang around their shop all day, with nothing better to do but chat. It seems that in sixteenth-century Europe, the gossiping barber was more than just a literary stereotype, as barbershops were often targeted by the authorities keen to eavesdrop on rumours of sedition and unrest.

I wonder what the EU commissioners (or, come to that, The Sun) would have made of this barber, who appears in the Dutch humanist Erasmus’s 1525 treatise on talk, Lingua:

‘We see so many people today like that barber; tell them a secret and they go into labour as if they would burst unless they pass on what they have heard, blurting it out to someone else. They look for another like themselves, demand eternal secrecy with many oaths, and then drop their burden; he in turn looks for someone else, who looks for another, until the whole country knows within a few days what was entrusted to one man.’

What Erasmus’s metaphor – the secret as pregnancy – seems to imply is that for a man to act in this way, unable to keep silent about the secrets he is told, is something of a travesty: a man behaving like a woman, labouring under that eternal female burden, the desire to gossip. Little ‘emotional wellbeing’ comes from this compulsion to talk: it appears more like a curse, with each link in the chain obliged to pass on what they have heard. Be careful what you tell your hairdresser.

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