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The example of Watergate: how the “gate” has become a symbolic substitution for political scandal

As with other infamous episodes, such as the Teapot Dome scandal or the Chappaquiddick tragedy, the event would be known by where it occurred.

But unlike those two precedents, the Watergate Office Building would be immortalized as the catch-all term for political scandal.

“Watergate”, in this context, is an example of metonymy. One part – the site of the break-in – comes to represent the greater whole: the illegal acts committed by the Nixon administration, as well as the subsequent investigation into them.

Metonymy is a common way to bolster English with new vocabulary – think of “Pentagon” as a stand-in for the US military, or “Hollywood” as a way to refer to the film industry.

What is unusual about Watergate is that one syllable broke apart to become the universally recognized designator for political misdeeds. When government-sponsored watered parties that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules came to light in the UK, the scandal quickly became known as ‘partygate’. But the syllable has also migrated beyond politics, becoming a label for wrongdoing of virtually any kind.

Other dissenters were also put into service to create new words. For example, “-athon”, from “marathon”, can emphasize the long duration of an event – telethon, dance-a-thon and hackathon. Similarly, “-aholic”, from “alcoholic”, designates an addiction: shopaholic, workaholic, sex addict.

But in terms of sheer productivity, “-gate” has no equal. Wikipedia’s list of -gates has over 260 entries. During his distinguished career, he was often wielded like a linguistic cudgel, and few other four-letter strings have such power to stigmatize and demonize.

The early years

A year after the Watergate robbery, the National Lampoon humor magazine referred to “Volgagate” – a fictional Russian scandal – in its August 1973 issue. This appears to have been the first use of -gate as a generic label for a political scandal.

A month later, Newsweek called “Winegate” a plan to peddle cheap Bordeaux. Its extension to viticulture suggested that -gate might have a life outside of politics.

But the real popularizer of -gate was William Safire, Nixon’s former speechwriter. As a conservative political columnist with The New York Times for more than 30 years, Safire has created or promoted many such terms. These included Billygate, Lancegate and Briefingate to describe the scandals that emerged during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. He also popularized Travelgate and Whitewatergate during the Clinton years.

These episodes did not reach the gravity of Watergate, of course. But by turning them into -gates, Safire implied that Democrats could be just as corrupt as Republicans.

Apart from Safire’s inventions, few episodes from the 1970s to the 1990s were labeled as -gates. Only about 10% of the terms on Wikipedia’s list date from the 20th century. Even the great political scandals of the time only occasionally received this epithet.

Consider the Reagan administration’s plan to use Iranian arms sales to fund the Nicaraguan Contras. All the trappings of a Watergate-like comparison were there: illegal activity, conspiracy, and attempted cover-up.

Despite this, The New York Times referred to the episode as “Reagangate” only twice, “Contragate” only 11 times, and “Irangate” approximately 100 times. In contrast, the newspaper used the phrase “Iran-Contra” nearly 6,000 times in its cover.

Open the “flood gates”

In the new millennium, however, -gate has become totally detached from politics. It has been used to describe kerfuffles in almost every area of ​​human endeavor – sports (Astrogate), journalism (Rathergate), technology (Antennagate), and entertainment (Nipplegate).

Already in 2022, hashtags referring to a number of events – such as #slapgate and #lettergate – are trending on Twitter. For those who value precision in language, that’s a problem – because if everything is scandal, then nothing is.

Consider “Ponytailgate”. In 2015, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, for several months, repeatedly pulled the ponytail of a young cafe waitress. He persisted despite repeated pleas from the waitress and the Prime Minister’s wife to stop. Such behavior is rude at best. But is it in the same category as events involving corruption, conspiracy or cover-up?

A pleasant sounding suffix

It may be that -gate is used because nothing better has happened. Replacement terms have had only limited popularity. The dissident “-ghazi” arose in reference to the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. It has occasionally been deployed against the Obama administration.

For example, when President Obama wore a beige suit to a press conference, “Beigeghazi” was born. But -ghazi probably failed as a suffix for scandal because it was too long.

This can be seen in the 2014 debate over what to call the lane closure scandal by former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Should it be “Bridgeghazi” or “Bridgegate” – or even “Bridgeaquiddick”?

Bridgegate won, presumably because it was shorter and simpler. The resonance seems to apply to other scandals as well: ‘Deflategate’ simply sounds better than ‘Ballghazi’ as the name of the New England Patriots football scandal.

Unique size?

Not content with its dominance of English, -gate has also seeped into other languages, such as German, Serbo-Croatian, Greek, and Hungarian.

But like most successful trends, the widespread use of -gate has caused significant backlash. As with Ponytailgate, many of these coins fail to differentiate the mundane from the important. This invites accusations of journalistic laziness, in which events are simply lumped together rather than analysed.

Additionally, overuse has turned the somewhat clever coin-gate constructions of the Safire era into the tired cliches of today. It can also be difficult to tell when a -gate construct is ironically, making interpretation difficult.

Finally, the shorthand is sometimes too short. “Reagangate” may have failed as a label for Iran-Contra because it wasn’t specific enough. The term could have referred to any of many different episodes during the eight years of Reagan’s administration.

At the other extreme, the same door has been applied to very different controversies. “Sharpiegate” referred to Terrell Owens signing a soccer ball in 2002. But it was also featured for President Donald Trump’s editing of a map of Hurricane Dorian’s path in 2019. And in 2020, he was linked to allegations of ballot rigging in Arizona. .

But even half a century later, -gate is still finding paid employment in politics. It has been used, for example, to tag several Trump scandals, from Russiagate to Ukrainegate. And President Joe Biden had to deal with Kabulgate and #formulagate.

No president has resigned since Nixon, arguably in the face of worse scandals than Watergate. As with the wear and tear of an overused suffix, one has to ask: have voters also become desensitized to political scandal?


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