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.