Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 25 April 2009

Dot Wordsworth on the suffix -gate

In the Guardian Paul MacInnes last week suggested casting Russell Crowe as Derek Draper in the film McBride of Satan. The subject would of course be the filthy emails from Number 10, or Smeargate as the press has called the scandal. This means that two gates have been swinging open and shut simultaneously in the papers, the other being Liegate, an incomprehensible saga of Formula 1 motor-racing. The lame formulae Smeargate and Liegate show the lack of imagination of journalists, and the surprising vigour of the suffix –gate nearly 37 years after the incident that spawned it. Watergate was the name of a building in Washington DC where the Democratic party had its national headquarters, burgled on 17 June 1972, by men connected with the Republican administration of President Richard Nixon. Soon Watergate came to be used as shorthand for an episode, as Suez was in 1956 or Hatfield in 2000. I cannot find it used as a generic metaphor for a scandal before June 1973. That summer too National Lampoon made reference to a scandal in Russia as Volgagate. Such geographical references multiplied, with an awkward Hollywoodgate in 1978 and a more durable Irangate in 1986.

Attempts were made to attach the suffix –gate to personal names, as with Muldergate, a scandal in 1977 in which Dr Connie Mulder fell from political power when millions of rands from the defence budget were found to have been diverted to a propaganda war. Then there was Cartergate, the details of which I cannot recall. Cartergate is quite a common place-name in the parts of England once open to Norse influence, as at Nottingham, Newark or Grimsby, where gate means ‘street’, so perhaps the folk there are enabled by this mnemonic to remember the details of the American scandal.

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