With all the political news jamming the airwaves, I hadn’t been paying much attention to Bridgegate. But it came up on the radio the other day, and I found myself musing both on the appropriateness of the term and the exhaustion of the suffix –gate.
The term seems amusingly appropriate since in essence, that’s what Governor Chris Christie’s minions accomplished on the infamous week in 2013 when they blocked two lanes going over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan: They erected a “gate” deliberately to frustrate drivers and turn their ire on the local mayor.
I asked a couple of undergraduate students about –gate. They’d heard of Deflategate, the kerfuffle over footballs that led to the four-game suspension of the Patriots’ Tom Brady. Where had –gate come from? They weren’t sure. One ventured Watergate, but couldn’t say if that was the original term or had something to do with a scandal involving water.
I hadn’t been keeping track, since the 1972 break-in at the Watergate office complex, but Wikipedia has. Or at least it’s been trying to keep track. Its list of 157 –gate scandals is, it warns, “a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness.” It doesn’t include fictional –gate scandals conceived by television shows and comic strips. Nonetheless, the list includes three Nannygates and three Troopergates. Staying up to the minute, it includes Pussygate, The Washington Post’s recent exposé of the “extremely lewd conversation about women” in which Donald Trump and Billy Bush engaged in 2005. It even includes a Gategate involving British MP Andrew Mitchell’s being asked to use a different gate in order to leave Downing Street on his bicycle.
Watergate itself was once a gate, as it turns out: the 40 stone “Water Gate” steps that led up from the Potomac to the Lincoln Memorial, from which audiences would listen to floating concerts in the 1930s. But few outside Washington knew the term until the Watergate became host to Nixon’s “plumbers.” True to –gate’s origins, most of the scandals listed in Wikipedia fall into the realm of politics, but the worlds of sport, technology, and arts and entertainment have their share. Even academe gets a piece of the -gate. Remember Climategate? Facebookgate?
Like any term that gets diluted over the years, the slapping on of the appendix –gate to various moments of embarrassment or chicanery tends to conflate those strings of clickbait with the more complex and invidious series of events that marked the original Watergate. The Oxford English Dictionary has kindly included a definition of -gate 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 editors point out that the suffix can append to place names, proper names, and common nouns (or, as in Deflategate, other parts of speech). To be comparable to Watergate, it seems to me, the scandal needs to involve nasty clandestine activity that comes to light and is followed by an almost equally nasty attempt to cover up or pass blame.
Bridgegate passes that test. So does Deflategate. Pussygate doesn’t meet that bar, though. Though the Donald has been blaming practically everyone but himself, his activities weren’t really clandestine. Other scandals to which Wikipedia called my attention prompted nostalgia more than the horror I still feel at the machinations of Watergate. Remember Closetgate, the furor over South Park’s spoof of Scientology? Or how about Billygate, the revelation that President Carter’s colorful brother had been representing Libya? My curiosity was sufficiently roused by Grangegate (“A political scandal involving New South Wales’ premier Barry O’Farrell and a $3,000 bottle of Penfolds Grange”) to look it up and discover that it had resulted in the unfortunate politician’s resignation, though presumably he drowned his sorrows nicely. And remember when we worried about Presidential haircuts? That would be Bill Clinton’s Hairgate, the worst scandal to affect him until … well, you know.
I think it’s time to retire the –gate suffix. Wikipedia is suggesting -ghazi, but that’s hard to spell and more apt to sink into the abyss of history. Surely someone can do, and spend months denying, something sufficiently invidious, illegal, and dangerous to claim its place in the 21st century lexicon. Vladimir, you got any ideas?
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