Etymology Usage


Q: The Watergate scandal wasn’t about a gate (or, for that matter, water), so why has the press (and the public) decided that “-gate” is a negative suffix? For example, “Troopergate” “Filegate,” etc.

A: The Watergate scandal has had a lot of fallout, some of it linguistic.

As you probably know, the story broke when people connected with the Nixon administration were caught breaking into the Democratic Party’s national headquarters on June 17, 1972.

The affair soon became known simply as “Watergate” because that’s the name of the building in Washington where the burglary took place.

A 1972 article in Time magazine, for example, says the Democrats “hope they can make Watergate a devastating—and durable—campaign issue.”

Since 1973, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “Watergate” has also been used to describe any large-scale scandal.

For instance, Doctor Frigo, a 1974 thriller by Eric Ambler, refers to a “Central American Watergate.”

And a 1974 theater review in the Times of London refers to the Sophocles tragedy Oedipus the King as a “Theban Watergate drama.”

The OED entry on “Watergate” also cites examples of the verb to “Watergate,” the verbal noun “Watergating,” and the noun “Watergater.”

And the dictionary has a separate entry on the suffix “-gate” used as “a terminal element denoting an actual or alleged scandal (and usually an attempted cover-up), in some way comparable with the Watergate scandal of 1972.”

The first citation for the suffix used this way is from a 1973 issue of the National Lampoon that refers to a Russian scandal as “Volgagate.”

Other OED citations for the suffix attached to a place associated with a scandal include “Dallasgate” (1975), “Koreagate” (1976), “Hollywoodgate” (1978), and “Irangate” (1986).

The dictionary also includes many citations for the suffix attached to the names of people, organizations, commodities, activities, etc., implicated in a scandal.

Here are some examples: “Motorgate” (1975), “Cattlegate” (1976), “Oilgate” (1978),  “Billygate” (1980), “Hearingsgate” (1983), and “Stalkergate” (1986).

We might add that this usage has become a cliché and ought to be retired.

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