In Defense of -Gate

Tim: You know what bothers me? People adding ‘-gate’ to the end of every scandal. Like this ‘Spygate’ thing. It doesn’t make sense. Watergate was a place–not a scandal about water.

Me: Yeah…

Tim: It’s like how we add ‘–oholic’ to the ends of things we’re addicted to, even though ‘-oholic’ is not a suffix.

Me: You’re right. Gateoholicgate is really quite the scandal.

—Conversation circa 2007

Like most fans of language, I find many of the linguistic phenomena of the last few years to be nonsensical, stupid, meaningless, and annoying. This was, basically, how I felt about the ‘-gate’ suffix we now habitually attach to every scandal. Since Tim and I first discussed this problem, we have seen Climategate, Troopergate, Kanyegate, Tigergate, Cablegate, and even something called “Sexy Photo Gate.” In fact, the suffix is now so common that it is attached to things that pass through the news cycle so quickly that they barely qualify as scandals.

My objections stemmed mainly from the historical inaccuracy of the source. As Tim said in the epigraph, the original “-gate” scandal, Watergate, was not a scandal about water, as the current usage would imply. More importantly, though, comparing Richard Nixon’s high crimes and conspiratorial nefariousness with a pop star who exposed her breast on television struck me as a false equivalency. Indeed, it was a brilliant political stroke by William Safire, who initially popularized the usage, at least in part to help dilute the impact of the crimes of his former boss.

But, as only a great mind can do, I was able to recognize the flaw in my original thinking. Language is designed to do one thing: to efficiently communicate thoughts and ideas. If the ideas are bad, we can’t blame the words that express them. As such, the ‘-gate’ suffix cannot be blamed for any negative social or political implications that it carries. Similarly, the etymology of a particular word or phrase is not the ultimate arbiter of its usefulness either.

And the ‘-gate’ suffix is undeniably useful to the parlance of our times. The reason why Wikipedia can fill an entire entry with examples of the ‘-gate’ suffix is that scandals have become ubiquitous. Indeed, they are the lifeblood of the 24-hour news cycle. As such, we need a way to refer to them, and there isn’t always a convenient and easy way to do it.

The ‘-gate’ suffix is perfect. For one, it is simply understood. At this point pretty much everyone understands that the formulation “Xgate” means “a scandal regarding X.” This makes it useful shorthand, even if the connection isn’t necessarily logical.* Even if you have never heard the word “Tigergate” before, you can immediately figure out that it refers to the “the fallout from the numerous revelations regarding Tiger Woods’ repeated infidelities and the subsequent divorce/sex rehab.” In addition to its brevity, then, the ‘-gate’ suffix achieves clarity.

*Speaking of illogical but commonly accepted shorthand: Why are the al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon known as “9/11” or “September 11th”? As far as I know, the date of the attack was more or less arbitrary, and we don’t refer to Pearl Harbor as “12/7,” to the London bombings as “7/7,” to D-Day as “6/6.” So what makes 9/11 special? It probably has something to do with the fact that the attacks could not be pinned to a specific geographical location, but it also probably has to do with the specific sound and meter of the date. The phrase ‘nine eleven’ consists of two trochees, while also containing no stop consonants, allowing it to flow off the tongue both rhythmically and effortlessly.

Secondly, ‘-gate’ is not already a suffix,* but it very easily becomes one. As an Anglo-Saxon monosyllable, it can be easily and comfortably attached to pretty much any noun or noun phrase in the English language.** This gives it the versatility to be applied to pretty much any conceivable scandal.

*Of the common English words ending in ‘-gate,’ most of them are either back formations of nouns ending in ‘-ation’ (investigate, segregate, negate), or they come from the Latin legatus, meaning an “authorized representative” (delegate, relegate).

**Compare this with the atrocious ‘oholic,’ which is neither a pre-existing suffix—the only words ending in ‘oholic’ in English are ‘alcoholic’ and ‘nonalcoholic’—nor can it be easily affixed to words of more than one syllable.

A suffix that is as concise, clear, and versatile as the ‘-gate’ suffix is certainly useful, and useful language should only be discarded if it sounds really, really awful. And while this suffix won’t win any awards for its poetry, it’s harmlessly mundane. So while the proliferation of gates may be troubling, it hardly qualifies as scandalous.


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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by soulmerchant on December 6, 2010 at 3:08 PM

    Wow, I’m on an NPI commenting spree, but it’s worth pointing out that in Britain those attacks *are* referred to as 7/7, and the Madrid attacks are called 3/11 in Spain. But those are obviously in imitation of/tribute to 9/11.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Kyle on December 7, 2010 at 9:48 AM

    Good points. Anybody who has a problem with “-gate” should have the same problem with “-burger.” A hamburger isn’t made of ham since the word was originally “hamburg + er” and not “ham + burger.” But a turkey burger, buffalo burger, and tofu burger are uncontroversially understood to be made of those things and have generally burger-like properties. Having said that, it’s sad that we have to keep track of things like veggie burgers not being made of veggies…and cheeseburgers being not burgers focused on cheese but just regular beefocentric hamburgers with one measly piece of cheese that then somehow usurps the title role. And this only happens to hamburgers. A turkey burger with cheese isn’t a cheeseburger. Sounds like cheese-gate to me–which unsurprisingly already exists: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/cheesegate-on-the-trail-o_b_4121.html.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Tim on December 9, 2010 at 2:11 PM

    Is “Xgate” really as clear as you make it out to be? The first time you heard “Spygate,” you instantly thought, “Oh, an NFL franchise illegally spied on another team’s practice”? And is “Nipplegate” really that clear? Name me a person who didn’t know what the deal was with Tiger Woods who intuitively understood it because it was called “Tigergate.”

    The problem is that, with the rush to apply -gate to any scandal, it won’t be long before there’s overlap. What if there is a legitimate scandal involving spies? (Or, I suppose, nipples or tigers?) Soon, we’ll have to clarify between real “-gates” and the less serious ones that, as you correctly note, are the lifeblood of the 24-hour news cycle. In a way, it’s not that different from the Wikileaks problem: When so much is classified as “secret,” it’s hard to protect what really matters. Or, when everything is a “-gate,” nothing is.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on December 9, 2010 at 5:57 PM

      Well, I see your point, but obviously context plays a role. I knew “spygate” was about the Patriots because they had been accused of spying. The point is that the word serves as an umbrella term for the incident, its backlash, and any related fallout. It’s much easier to say “Spygate,” than to say, “that time when the Patriots get caught illegally videotaping another team’s practice and then had to forfeit a draft pick.” You have to have some background knowledge, but the word exists as a shorthand. Context always plays a role in language, and here is no different.

      As a result, as the context changes, the word loses meaning. If you ask most people today what “Memogate” is, they probably won’t remember that it was about false documents CBS used on a 2004 episode of 60 Minutes about George W. Bush. This more or less solves the overlap problem: If there were a serious scandal about spies, then “spygate” would cease to refer to the Patriots (depending on your audience).

      Reply

  4. There’s also the problem that the original Watergate was a very long time ago – I bet most of you were not even born in 1972. It becomes increasingly irrelevant as times goes by, but the media love their shortcuts – it turns a complex news story down into a one work catchphrase that means almost nothing.

    See: http://onemillionthings2hate.blogspot.com/2011/11/gate-scandals.html

    Reply

  5. [...] a Republican administration both Fast and Furious and Benghazi would be getting fitted for their -gates. Still, the media chose to ignore the story. As a hurricane made its way toward states in the [...]

    Reply

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