Windrush

New proper names are coined in many ways. Descriptions get institutionalized: A creek on rocky ground becomes known as Rock Creek; a gatelike wooden structure at the mouth of Rock Creek, in Washington, D.C., becomes known as the Water Gate.

Two-part names can be amalgamated: A hotel and office complex near the Water Gate was christened Watergate.

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Reference can then be extended through metonymy: The scandal arising out of a Nixon-era break-in at the Watergate took its name, and as Wikipedia correctly points out, that name broadened its reference to “an array of clandestine and often illegal activities undertaken by members of the Nixon administration,” some having little to do with the break-in.

Parts of established nouns can then be pasted together into portmanteau words. Breaking off -istan from Afghanistan or Pakistan, we can paste it onto London to get Londonistan — a derisive name used to suggest that London is a hotbed of Islamist terrorism.

Watergate was thus chopped into Water- and -gate (ironically reversing the original coalescence), and (to cite one example out of dozens) substituting Weiner for Water yielded Weinergate, the name for a scandal that saw Anthony Weiner, once a congressman for New York, sent to federal prison over his addiction to salacious text conversations with young women.

Almost any name vaguely associated with a situation can be utilized in coining a name for a scandal or political brouhaha emanating from that situation. One very recent scandal in immigration politics in Britain was, improbably, named after a ship that sank decades ago.

A German-built ocean liner originally named the Monte Rosa was acquired by the British during World War II and renamed the Empire Windrush. In 1948, on its way back from Australia via the Atlantic, it docked in Kingston, Jamaica, where a new British law had just made the local inhabitants citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies with an untrammeled legal right to enter and settle in any part of Britain.

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Through a newspaper advertisement, cheap passage to Britain on the Empire Windrush was offered to any Jamaicans who wanted it. When the ship docked at Tilbury, west of London, on June 22, it was carrying more than 400 Jamaicans. Their arrival marked the start of Britain’s transition to the racially diverse, multicultural society it is today. They were to be joined during the 1950s and 1960s by hundreds of thousands of others.

They took jobs on the trains and buses, in the National Health Service, and in trades from building to manufacturing to popular music. They enlivened and transformed large parts of English cities like London and Birmingham. My five years as a rock musician are unimaginable without the influence of the Jamaicans: We learned ska and reggae in Jamaican clubs, and I married the daughter of a Jamaican carpenter.

Despite years of virulent racism, African-Caribbean immigrants settled in as a permanent part of British life, becoming familiar figures in entertainment, broadcasting, literature, sport, law, Parliament, and every profession you can think of.

However, in the past decade a policy instituted by the Conservative government has been quietly but very deliberately attempting to establish a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, and at some point Jamaicans who had been living in Britain for half a century started finding themselves caught in bureaucratic traps intended for recent illicit arrivals or overstays.

Under new laws, employers and landlords had to verify citizenship of employees. Jamaicans who had been in the country for 60 years, and children of theirs who had arrived with them when very young, were being told to produce legal proof of residence that they simply didn’t have. Some lost their jobs or homes. Others who had traveled to Jamaica to see family found they were barred from returning to Britain: Jamaica had become independent in 1962, and they were now being treated as foreigners lacking documentation of their entitlement to British residence.

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Notice, this is not analogous to the problem that the DACA policy was supposed to deal with in America: The Jamaicans on the Empire Windrush, and their children, were legal immigrants. (The ship caught fire and sank in the Mediterranean 1954, killing four crew.)

The malign consequences of immigration-phobic Conservative policies had been pointed out repeatedly to the government, but really hit the headlines a couple of weeks ago in a journalistic firestorm that ended the career of one very senior minister (Home Secretary Amber Rudd). It needed a name, and the name that caught on was “Windrush.” (Not “Windrushgate": The mostly American practice of naming scandals with the -gate element usually applies to frauds or coverups. Windrush is a mere political brouhaha about a bungled policy.)

We cannot predict what new scandals will need names in the future; but we can be sure that normal processes of language evolution will suffice to permit them to be named.