DeflateGate? Ballghazi? (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The media, social and otherwise, are conflicted: What to call the controversy surrounding the deflation of the footballs the New England Patriots used in last week’s AFC championship game?

The obvious — DeflateGate, with its rhyming syllables and absurdist imagery — has lately been pushed by a new challenger: Ballghazi.


The awkward portmanteau is but the latest iteration of “-ghazi” as a signifier of all-purpose scandal. The term briefly blossomed early last year during New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s travails over his administration’s closing of traffic lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in 2013. Many people referred to the issue as “Bridgegate,” but a meme-happy minority briefly got “Bridgeghazi” trending, at least around the Beltway.

While “-gate” still dominates the media controversy industry, “-ghazi” has hung around, popping up now and again on incidents that managed to stay in the news for a few cycles.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throws a pass during the first half of the AFC championship NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Just as “-gate” grew out of the Watergate scandal during Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1972, “-ghazi” refers to another White House-related episode: the Obama administration’s response to the terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that killed four Americans, including J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

Hold the outraged comments and tweets, please. We know these aren’t equivalent. Watergate was a real scandal that led to the resignation of a president. Benghazi was certainly a tragedy, but whether it was a scandal is dubious at best. Despite the insistence of a hard core of holdouts, many of the claims of White House perfidy following the attack have been debunked, including most recently by a Republican-led House panel.

This could, of course, be a semantic weakness of “-ghazi” as an scandal label — it suggests a would-be scandal, not an actual one. (Plus, not to get too technical, but “ghazi” is an Arabic word that means champion or hero, especially a defender of the Muslim faith against non-Muslims.)

Then again, lots of “-gate” scandals never amounted to much either, points out Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth professor who has studied the dynamics of political scandals. Remember “Debate-gate” and “Bottle-gate”? Probably not.

“There certainly are all kinds of ‘-gate’ labels floating around that people have used to try to popularize allegations that never became scandals” under an objective set of criteria, such as the story’s appearance on Page One of the newspaper, Nyhan said. “More importantly, I think it’s fair to say most controversies described using ‘-gate’ fall well short of the substantive importance or evidentiary basis of Watergate.”

In that sense, said Nyhan, “-ghazi” functions in the same way as “-gate” — ironically, as a way to mock high-profile controversies as manufactured pseudo-scandals. Liberals might be using “-ghazi” that way to make fun of conservatives who have proclaimed multiple scandals during President Obama’s two terms, though Nyhan cautions, “You’d have to ask them to be sure about their intent.”

If so, things got very confusing during “Bridgeghazi.” Some prominent conservatives were incensed at the coinage, saying that it trivialized the deaths of four Americans. And liberals surely had no incentive to use the term ironically since doing so would undercut their hopes of embarrassing a would-be Republican presidential candidate.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speaks at a news conference in Foxborough, Massachusetts on Jan. 22, 2015. (Elise Amendola/AP)

The politics and point of view of the term “Ballghazi” seem ambiguous, too. Are users suggesting there’s no real issue surrounding the Patriots? And does “DeflateGate” make the case any stronger? (Perhaps this controversy-within-a-controversy could be called “Deflate-gate-ghazi” or “Ball-ghazi-gate” . . .)

Next question: Does “-ghazi” have legs?

“I suspect ‘-ghazi’ will not last. Two syllables — one too many. Too hard to spell. Also it is a scandal that has flopped so far. ‘-Gate’ is simple, one syllable.”

Says who? Says Bob Woodward, who along with Carl Bernstein did the reporting for The Washington Post that helped ignite the Watergate scandal more than 42 years ago.

Woodward claims no credit for “-gate,” nor even for popularizing “Watergate” as the catchall for the Nixonian web of spying, sabotage, financial improprieties and cover-ups. He credits the columnist Jack Anderson for that coinage.

The great promoter of “-gate” was William Safire, the former Nixon speechwriter who became a New York Times columnist. Safire tacked “-gate” onto numerous controversies, including “Billy-gate,” which was about presidential brother Billy Carter’s ties to the dictatorial regime in Libya. However, Safire wasn’t the first to use the suffix; the first known use of it appears to have been by the late humor magazine National La mpoon, which in 1973 dubbed a fictitious Soviet scandal “Volga-gate.”

“Of course it made no sense,” said Woodward of all the “-gating.” “I’m surprised ‘-gate’ has lasted.”

Woodward said “Watergate” should have been dubbed “Gemstone,” which was the code word among Nixon’s henchman for a series of clandestine activities. But the reference didn’t surface until months after the first hints of scandal had emerged. By then, it was too late. The news media had already latched on to the name of the Washington office and hotel complex as the symbol of Nixon’s crimes.

Woodward has his own preference: “Bug.” That was the slug, or internal title, of the initial stories about Watergate that he and Bernstein wrote. (As in, the bugging of political opponents.) It didn’t stick.

Which is too bad, he said. “It made the most sense.”