We can’t have a scandal without the -gate

Correction: Earlier versions of this article, including in Sunday’s print edition of The Washington Post, incorrectly described the Watergate building where the break-in occurred. It was an office building.

We can discuss and debate the political and cultural impact of the Watergate scandal, which began 40 years ago this week, but the linguistic impact is clear: All of the salacious occurrences of the world — the frauds and felonies and loose-zippered failures — have been corralled together to reside in one vast gated community.

The real estate was developed by Whitewatergate, in a deal leaked by Cablegate and Filegate. Monicagate and Camillagate lived next door to each other. They were chummy for a while, both the victims of taped telephone conversations involving powerful men, although they had less in common after Camilla married her prince and became the Duchess of Cornwall. Stop complaining about Linda Tripp, she would tell Monicagate when she phoned, slightly drunk, after midnight. Just burn some sage and let it go.

The three Troopergates had endless problems with their mail being misdelivered. Can’t they address mine as “Sarah Palin’s Troopergate?” the third one wanted to know. It would solve everything.

Or just call me “Number One Troopergate,” suggested the one that had to do with Bill Clinton’s Arkansas troopers — but everyone saw what he was trying to pull there.

At some point, someone pointed out that each successive Troopergate scandal had been completely different in scope and topic, and questioned out loud whether it would be possible for any of them to be granted a different name entirely. Something without “gate” on the end. Trooper-jam. Trooper-fracas. Trooper-duper.

But it was not possible.

It will never be possible.

Until the ever-loving end of time, we, the people, will be destined to pluck random nouns from the news, stick “-gate” on the end, wait for it to catch on and then smugly glance around like first-graders who have just told a doody joke. Doodygate! (No.)

It was cute, borderline clever, when this practice started in 1972. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded example of a -gating was in the August edition of Harvard’s National Lampoon, just two months after the break-in at the Watergate office building. “Volgagate” was the inaugural phrase, in reference to the Russian river.

It had almost certainly stopped being cute, borderline clever, by 1991, when the renowned language columnist William Safire wrote of the galloping rush to gate-ify a kerfuffle in the House of Representatives involving bad checks. Safire put forth “Housegate.” He prided himself in being a gate whiz kid, a gate prodigy, a master-gater when it came to coining this sort of thing.

“I’m often first out of the box,” he wrote in his column. “After Koreagate, which never got off the ground, there were Lancegate and Billygate.”

It became one of those shorthands, relied upon over and over again because it was so accessible to such a large portion of the population. Cliches have a purpose — they help big groups of diverse people get on the same page.

What shall we call independent politicians? Mavericks.

What shall we call it when they’re caught with their pants down? Maverickgate.

At a certain point, it all turned ridiculous, a parody of a travesty. The gate was creaky, the gate was rusty. The gate needed a healthy squirt of WD-40, but pundits could not resist hopping on the tetanus-laden thing anyway. One might have assumed that Nipplegate (Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, scorched eyeballs) would be a worthy finale to what had become a boob of a trope anyway. It wasn’t, though — not even Weinergate (New York congressman, his smartphone, scorched eyeballs) could end the ringing and the swinging of the gate.

America had scandals before 1972.

We had names for them, too, good ones. The Whiskey Ring, in which government employees during Ulysses S. Grant’s administration were discovered to be pocketing booze taxes. The Star Route affair, about wrongdoings in the postal system. The Teapot Dome scandal (bribery during Warren G. Harding’s administration) was a big deal in its day, but nobody transformed “-dome” into a permanent suffix.

That’s an honor that has belonged only to Watergate, perhaps due to the event’s archetypal status in American politics. It “became the touchstone, the definitive point of reference for subsequent scandals,” wrote sociologist Michael Schudson on the impact of Watergate. “Watergate not only inspired journalists to seek out scandals,” but it also “offered a public language for discussing scandal.”

Language experts have words for what has gone down with -gate. It’s called “morphology” or “reanalysis.” In this context, the word has not only been reanalyzed but completely re-imagined. The suffix “-gate” means something completely different than the original suffix ever did.

Watergate (not the scandal, but the office building the scandal was named after) was itself named after an intended entrance to the city that never quite came to be. Originally, the architectural plans for Arlington Memorial Bridge in 1926 included a set of stairs that would lead to the Potomac River — a ceremonial entrance to the city for dignitaries arriving by water. A Water Gate. The steps were built, but instead of being used by dignitaries, they led to a stage, which hosted outdoor performances. When construction began on the nearby Watergate buildings in 1963, it is thought, the complex took its name from this nearby space.

An urban planning quirk resulting in a linguistic party trick. The gates, long opened, cannot easily be shut. They swing in the breeze, waiting for a handyman to arrive with a heavy-duty, zinc-plated latch set and a shiny new box of words.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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