Notes on a Scandal
In 1972 the biggest news story in the United States broke with much shock on the public’s side and much chagrin to the Republican Party: a burglary at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters was linked to Richard Nixon’s government.
The Watergate building in Washington DC was the scene of the crime, and by extension, the scandal became known as Watergate.
Nixon resigned in 1974, the first U.S. President to do so, avoiding an impeachment trial and possible removal from office for abuses of power.
Watergate was a major episode in twentieth-century U.S. politics, and it had an interesting and lasting effect on the English language and others: Watergate spurned the use of the rather productive -gate suffix and gave us a new way to discuss scandals and controversies.
What’s so special about -gate?
The -gate suffix is unusual in a number of ways. Firstly, -gate by itself contains no semantic elements that originally connoted or denoted ‘scandal’, ‘affair’, or ‘controversy.’
Today, we all recognise that -gate means scandal because it now carries that meaning — not a bad effort for a morphological oddity that entered our lexicons a mere 50 years ago. That, by itself, makes it stand out from other English suffixes, most of which are from Latin and Greek roots and carry a distinct semantic meaning.
The suffix is also special because it swiftly spread around the world and into other languages. The Handbook of Morphology lists -gate’s use in German, Hungarian, Greek and others. Consider Valijagate, here a Spanish noun, valija, meaning suitcase, is combined with the English -gate.
It doesn’t stop there, though, the concept and structure of the -gate suffix’s format works in other languages. In Milan, Italy a 1990s political scandal was dubbed 'Tangentopoli', where tangente means kickback or bride and poli means city. Calciopoli and Vallettopoli are two of the scandals that followed.
Another interesting thing about -gate is that it doesn’t change a word’s class like many other suffixes in English. For example, the -ly suffix makes adverbs from adjectives, sad becomes sadly. The -ous suffix makes adjectives from nouns, so pore becomes porous.
(Well, I can’t think of a -gate compound word where the word class is changed to a noun from something other than a noun, but please leave a comment if you can!).
Gategate… has the “obnoxious -gate suffix” gone too far?
In 2014, Caitin Dewey called the -gate suffix “obnoxious” while writing about Gamergate for The Washington Post. It’s a fair summation that many people would agree with. It seems that -gate is tacked onto any number of events, be they scandalous or humorous.
There’s even a whole Wikipedia page devoted to listing -gate events. While perusing this list, I came across Gategate, also known as Plebgate and Plodgate, a British political scandal that involved an MP swearing at a police officer after being asked to use a different gate to enter 10 Downing Street.
A Bloomberg article on the topic notes that -gate is popular worldwide but that it “appears to have reached new heights of absurdity in the U.K.” The writer goes on to say that Gategate is taking the practice of -gate scandal naming “to its logical conclusion.”
It does seem that -gate is frequently applied to humorous events and PR disasters, especially in the United Kingdom. There’s Piggate, for example, which involved former Prime Minister, David Cameron, sexual acts, and a pig’s head.
Journalists and social commentators often cop the blame for the overuse, misuse, or abuse of -gate, but as this Twitter user points out, it’s just so handy in a headline:
The biggest -gate offender in history may surprise you. William Safire, a New York Times op-ed columnist and former Nixon speechwriter loved adding the obnoxious suffix.
Famous gates (and a few funny ones)
You can probably think of at least five ‘gate’ scandals off the top of your head (if not, check out that Wikipedia page). Here’s my pick of the bunch:
Bridgegate - As with Watergate, Bridgegate’s cover-up may have been far more offensive than the crime itself. In 2013, appointees of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie colluded to create traffic jams on the George Washington bridge by closing lanes. The point? Possible political retribution, according to numerous sources.
Fajitagate - Three off-duty San Francisco police officers, a bag of steak fajitas, and two police chiefs out of the job, quite the scene. This scandal got its name after it was reported that the officers in question demanded that people surrender their fajitas.
Nipplegate - Aka the wardrobe malfunction. Not a scandal per se, but a juicy media affair nonetheless. This one sprung up (out?) after Justin Timberlake accidentally released Janet Jackson’s breast during a Superbowl performance.
What do you think, has the use of -gate gone too far?