Lift up your heads, O ye gates

Recent reports on the -gate front: on September 20th, in a comment from Chris Waigl on my mooch(er)- word posting, moochergate; and in the September 24th New Yorker, a Talk of the Town piece “Gropegate” (p. 34) by Ben McGrath, about NY state assemblyman Vito Lopez and his reported inclination to grope female staff.

These took me back to a reporter’s query in June about -gate words.

(Background: there are collections of -gate words all over the place, some of which I’ll sample below. There’s even a piece in American Speech — Brian Joseph’s “Yet more on -gate words: A perspective from Greece”, AmSp 67.222-3 (1992) — with a bibliography of material in the journal from 1978 through 1987.)

Now to the e-mail query from Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse on 6/7/12. She wrote:

I am working on a story … for the 40th anniversary of Watergate. The story is about the over -gating of American scandals: Monicagate, Whitewatergate, Troopergates 1, 2, and 3 — etc.

It seems excessively lazy to me. I wondered if you had any thoughts about the topic — whether there were similar examples that came to mind of this sort of thing, what “this sort of thing” is even properly called (besides “cliche.”)

Notice that she had her take on the story — lazy over-gating — and was probably just seeking material from me that she could use to burnish her story. At the end of her message, she asked me to get in touch with her by phone, something I rarely do, for two reasons: I like to keep control over the way I frame things and to have a record of that; and telephone-call requests usually mean the reporter is on a tight deadline, often for the next day.

It takes me a while to respond to queries thoughtfully, so of course by the time I got it together it was almost surely too late, but I sent her some fodder anyway, on June 12th. Somewhat edited for coherence:

[MH: It seems excessively lazy to me.] [AZ:] And to many others. See this Language Log posting by Geoff Pullum, “Snowclonegate”, written in response to a Guardian piece of 2/1/10 by David March, the editor of the Guardian‘s style guide, complaining about the plague of -gate words. A quote:

If you think this is a gate or two too many, you are not alone. One of our readers says: “It seems that the Guardian has fallen into the habit of tacking ‘gate’ on to the end of various words as a sort of code to acknowledge the existence of a scandal. Even if it’s meant tongue in cheek, this is a sloppy cliche, and surely impenetrable for any reader too young to remember Watergate.”

Another reader wrote, at the height of the Jonathan Ross-Russell Brand phone call row: “The continued use of the appendage ‘gate’ to any minor or major scandal is seriously irritating this Guardian reader of some 30 years. I have read numerous references to ‘Sachsgate’ in the past few weeks. Last week we had a reference to ‘Trousergate’. This morning we had ‘Erminegate’, only a day after the story broke. I see this as lazy journalism, worthy of any red-top, and in my view the Guardian is better than this.”

Something that Marsh and the readers he quotes don’t get is that these -gate words are not just journalistic laziness but also language play; they are ostentatiously jokey inventions. And their brevity is in fact useful; in many cases, it would be hard to beat the pithiness of the invention in referring to some current scandalous event. Almost all of these labels will of course be short-lived, since public interest in the events referred to will also be short-lived.

On “what sort of thing” -gate is:

gate is an instance of a phenomenon i’ve written about many times on my blog, under the heading of “libfix” — an element of some word that has become detached (liberated) from the original and now serves as an affix-like element on its own. Michael Quinion on his Affixes siterefers to these things as “combining forms”; Quinion’s brief -gate entry of 9/23/08 is here.

An inventory of postings on libfixes (up to a year ago) is here.

Some other examples: -((e)t)eria, –dar (starting with gaydar), -((o)r)ama, -(((t)r)e)preneur.

Meanwhile, Hesse had forged ahead with her WaPo piece, published on June 10th, updated on the 11th:

We can’t have a scandal without the -gate

We can discuss and debate the political and cultural impact of the Watergate scandal, which began 40 years ago this week, but the linguistic impact is clear: All of the salacious occurrences of the world — the frauds and felonies and loose-zippered failures — have been corralled together to reside in one vast gated community.

The real estate was developed by Whitewatergate, in a deal leaked by Cablegate and Filegate. Monicagate and Camillagate lived next door to each other. They were chummy for a while, both the victims of taped telephone conversations involving powerful men, although they had less in common after Camilla married her prince and became the Duchess of Cornwall. Stop complaining about Linda Tripp, she would tell Monicagate when she phoned, slightly drunk, after midnight. Just burn some sage and let it go.

… Until the ever-loving end of time, we, the people, will be destined to pluck random nouns from the news, stick “-gate” on the end, wait for it to catch on and then smugly glance around like first-graders who have just told a doody joke. Doodygate! (No.)

It was cute, borderline clever, when this practice started in 1972. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded example of a -gating was in the August edition of Harvard’s National Lampoon, just two months after the break-in at the Watergate office building. “Volgagate” was the inaugural phrase, in reference to the Russian river.

It had almost certainly stopped being cute, borderline clever, by 1991, when the renowned language columnist William Safire wrote of the galloping rush to gate-ify a kerfuffle in the House of Representatives involving bad checks. Safire put forth “Housegate.” He prided himself in being a gate whiz kid, a gate prodigy, a master-gater when it came to coining this sort of thing.

“I’m often first out of the box,” he wrote in his column. “After Koreagate, which never got off the ground, there were Lancegate and Billygate.”

It became one of those shorthands, relied upon over and over again because it was so accessible to such a large portion of the population. Cliches have a purpose — they help big groups of diverse people get on the same page.

At a certain point, it all turned ridiculous, a parody of a travesty. The gate was creaky, the gate was rusty. The gate needed a healthy squirt of WD-40, but pundits could not resist hopping on the tetanus-laden thing anyway. One might have assumed that Nipplegate (Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake, scorched eyeballs) would be a worthy finale to what had become a boob of a trope anyway. It wasn’t, though — not even Weinergate (New York congressman, his smartphone, scorched eyeballs) could end the ringing and the swinging of the gate.

What’s interesting to me in this story is that, despite its usefulness (especially in headlines), -gate never became naturalized, in 40 years, as a more or less ordinary affix of the language (evoking some recent notable event), but has maintained its ostentatious, jokey status. And therefore grates on many people’s ears. (Compare X-gate with “distant” N + N compounds, which are equally context-specific and short-lived, but don’t generally arouse such rancor.)

3 Responses to “Lift up your heads, O ye gates”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    For some more recent Pullum comments on -gate words, see his Lingua Franca piece, “Frankenwords”.

  2. Franken meets gate « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] looked at -gate words a month ago, here.  And dreadful-weather words, including Frankenstorm, more recently, here. The storm posting went […]

  3. scandal | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] assisted by the easy availability of the libfix -gate (discussion on this blog, with links, here). Yes, we now have Spitzergate, Weinergate, and […]

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