Almost half a century has passed since Watergate first entered public consciousness. The name quickly became synonymous with political scandal and has since spawned a spate of ‘-gate’ suffixes for anything from minor parish council peccadillos to serious breaches of moral or professional standards.
These suffixes – and their proliferation – are the theme of this week’s rant, but first let’s take a look at the original Watergate and its implications. Younger readers may be well aware of the name but not the circumstances that have made it so familiar.
The Watergate office complex in Washington, DC, was the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and first made minor headlines on June 17, 1972, when five burglars were arrested during a break-in at the Democrat Party’s premises.
Although there was no immediate explanation for the burglary – and it was not treated as a major story at the time – the crime turned out to be the tip of a very large and very dirty iceberg, with Titanic-like impact that would rip through the White House over the next two years and ultimately sink Richard Nixon’s presidency
As later evidence would show, the burglars were members of Nixon’s (Republican) Committee to Re-Elect the President (known derisively as CREEP). In an election year they stole copies of top-secret documents belonging to their opponents and bugged the office phones.
Nixon had ordered the break-in but made repeated denials when Watergate developed into high-level US inquiries and tried to cover up his own and his administration’s involvement. Additional crimes were also uncovered and Nixon ultimately had to admit defeat, resigning on August 9, 1974 and becoming the only US president to do so.
Watergate went into the history books – and the dictionaries, as “a scandal, an affair of a controversial and unclear and suspicious nature”. This usage is grammatically known as ‘metonymy’ – where a name or an attribute is used to represent the whole. The variant is to take the ‘-gate’ suffix as the identifier, adding whatever prefix denotes the scandal referred to.
The OED’s first recorded example is from August 1972 in National Lampoon, just two months after the eponymous burglary: “There have been persistent rumors in Russia of a vast scandal. Implicated in ‘Volgagate’ are a group of liberal officials.”
By few months more, -gate had caught on as a craze that showed no signs of abating, as signalled by the weary use of ‘inevitably’ in this quotation: “Inevitably, the brouhaha of Bordeaux [authenticity of origin] became known as Winegate.”
Whether used to describe the place (Volgagate) or the commodity (Winegate) associated with a scandal, subsequent references extended to people or organizations identified as the perpetrators or victims of misconduct, such as as the 1978 Billygate (involving Billy Carter, brother of former US president (Jimmy), and the UK’s Totegate (1983) which investigated betting practices at the National Totalisator (Tote) system.
First time round, even in early days, it was original and inventive. Half a century later, it has become a tired and overworked cliché that has outlived its usefulness. The term is now applied – sometimes humorously or bathetically – to all kinds of scandals, controversies, and upsets; a very recent example being ‘chairgate’ (of which more later).
It has even escaped from English to be commonplace in other languages to refer to local political scandals. Instances have been reported from Argentina, Germany, South Korea, Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria, and Croatia to name just a few. Even Mandarin Chinese now has the equivalent kani as a suffix symbolising ‘-mén’, from the traditional Chinese for door or gate.
Wikipedia has dozens of pages listing examples in six categories: Arts and entertainment, Journalism and academics, Politics, Sports, Technology, and Other. There are so many I could not begin to count them all, but no fewer than 423 references are cited, probably accounting for just a small fraction of the worldwide total.
Of all Wiki’s entries, my favourite came after seemingly endless scrolling with the page-down key held tight. It comes from a Wallace and Gromit animation where Gromit is sentenced to life imprisonment for sheep racketeering in a trial that newspapers refer to as the ‘Woollygate scandal’.
I promised to come back to ‘chairgate’ – the recent imbroglio after European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was denied a chair while meeting her Turkish opposite number Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. Only two gilded Ottoman chairs were available and Erdogan took one without first offering the other to von der Leyen.
Not surprising, Erdogan being a male chauvinist of some note. But the spare chair was promptly taken by Charles Michel, president of the European Council, leaving von der Leyen – his senior in European hierarchy – having to perch on the edge of a nearby sofa while the two men chatted face to face.
We could not expect any better from Erdogan, he has a reputation to live down to after all. There’s an irony here if his Tayyip name corresponds to the Arabic ‘Tayib’ one of the main principles of Sharia finance, meaning ‘Is it fair to all concerned?’ (!)
But Monsieur Michel? Whatever became of the famed French courtesy and gallantry? Sacre bleu! This is a criminal mystery that needs all the detective powers of Maigret and Poirot combined.
Chairgate – also known as Sofagate and Divangate – would mark an appropriate finale for the entire -gate saga. Watergate, itself marks an ironically fitting end, The name comes from the ‘gate’ that once regulated the flow of water from the Potomac River into its tidal basin.
Like the stablegate, let that floodgate now be reopened. Let the horses bolt, let the floods wash away all the ‘-gates’ left behind. Après moi, le deluge.