The 'gate' suffix
Eleanor Maier, OED
In 1972 the United States was transfixed by the revelation that the burglary at the national headquarters of the Democratic Party was connected with Richard Nixon's Republican government. The burglary took place in the Watergate building, Washington DC, and thus, by metonymy, the scandal itself became known by the name of Watergate. One of the most significant episodes in modern US politics, Watergate has since reshaped the language of scandal and controversy in a format that also extends beyond English-speaking commentaries.
The Watergate effect
The OED's entry for Watergate illustrates how extensively the affair entered public consciousness. Within a year the word was being used to describe similar scandals elsewhere and had also spawned several derivatives including the verb to Watergate and the nouns Watergater and Watergating. Other, less permanent, coinages also exist such as the following from the Daily Times-News (Burlington, North Carolina) in 1973:
Like the life of the city, it [sc. the distribution of football season tickets] is politics pure and simple, sometimes sort of Watergatery.
But Watergate continued to have far-reaching consequences both for Richard Nixon and the English language.
Only a year after Watergate, the scandal had become so well known that -gate became detached and was used to create names for other scandals. The OED’s first recorded example is from August 1972 in National Lampoon:
‘There have been persistent rumors in Russia of a vast scandal.‥ Implicated in “the Volgagate” are a group of liberal officials.’
A few months later the –gate craze had shown no signs of abating, a fact signalled by the weary use of ‘inevitably’ in the following quotation:
‘Inevitably, the brouhaha of Bordeaux became known as Wine-gate.’
Here used to describe the place (Volgagate) or the commodity (Wine-gate) associated with a scandal, subsequent references extended to people or organizations identified as the perpetrators or victims of misconduct, as in the 1978 Billygate (involving Billy Carter, brother of the former US president) and the UK's Totegate (1983) which investigated betting practices.
Now the term is applied, sometimes humorously or bathetically, to all kinds of scandals, controversies, and upsets, with recent US and UK examples including nipplegate, climategate, and Sachsgate. Although most of these formations are short-lived, –gate itself endures, having become a fully-fledged suffix, breaking all ties with the Watergate building. This fact is used to comic effect by the British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb in their sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look:
WEBB: Oh, the scandal in America. Yeah, that is interesting. That must be the biggest scandal since Watergategate.
MITCHELL: Watergategate? Isn't it just Watergate?
WEBB: No. That would mean it was just about water. No, it was a scandal or gate, add the suffix gate, that's what you do with a scandal, involving the Watergate Hotel. So it was called the Watergate scandal, or Watergategate.
MITCHELL: Well said.
The continued success of –gate shows how English-speakers have welcomed the means to describe any sort of scandalous event with a snappy suffix. The appeal of such a suffix can be further illustrated by a similar development in Italian.
Gli scandali italiani: ‘-opoli’
In the early 1990s Italy was rocked by its own scandal, when a criminal investigation exposed widespread corruption and bribery among the country's politicians, civil servants, and businesses. The investigation was centred on the city of Milan, which was dubbed Tangentopoli by the press. Tangentopoli is formed from the noun tangente, meaning bribe, and the suffix –poli used to designate a city or town (compare the English suffix –opolis); an English rendering of the term is Bribesville (compare the –ville suffix, a use dating from the mid-sixteenth century and in regular use from the late nineteenth). By metonymy the name Tangentopoli was transferred from the city in which the scandal was centred to the scandal itself.
As with –gate from Watergate, the suffix -poli became detached from Tangentopoli and took on a life of its own, creating new words to describe new scandals. These included Affittopoli (rentgate, a scandal in which politicians were revealed to be renting luxury apartments from the state for very low sums of money), Esamopoli (examgate, in which it was discovered that lecturers at the University of Bari had been selling exam papers to students) and, most famously, Calciopoli (footballgate, a match-fixing scandal involving some of Italy’s top football clubs; also known as Moggiopoli after the Juventus director Luciano Moggi).
However, even in Italy, Calciopoli is sometimes called Calciogate, illustrating the enduring and far-reaching influence of a suffix that can trace its birth to a burglary in Washington on the evening of 17 June 1972.
Where next with the OED Online?
- in addition to Watergate, the OED offers 307 entries for which the first recorded reference dates from 1972, including blaxploitation, chocoholic, guilt trip, and tumble-drier.
- the OED Online also includes 282 entries derived from US political life, among them carpet-bagger (1868), flip-flop (1890), popocracy (1896), and Bushism (1980).
How do I search for these? With subscriber access to the OED Online you can search for entries by date, usage, origin, region, and subject using the Advanced Search option. To group entries by time-period, use Advanced Search/date of entry or entry range; to find words derived from notable arenas use Advanced Search/Browse subject—and follow the link from ‘politics’.