On a recent visit to Washington, I found the political chatterati all agog about the 50th anniversary of the break-in by Republican operatives at an office building in the United States capital named Watergate. The building on the Potomac riverside, still an iconic sight in Washington, also gave its name to the scandal that ensued, which led to the historic resignation of US president Richard Nixon. History knows the 1972 event and the resulting political drama by that name, Watergate.
But ever since the Watergate building lent its name to one of America’s most memorable political scandals, “-gate” became the preferred suffix for all sorts of controversies, not justpolitical ones. This was always a bit bizarre, since the Watergate scandal was neither about water, nor about a gate, but “-gate” still quickly devolved into the signifier of choice for scandals worldwide. This is why the world media was referring to outgoing British prime minister Boris Johnson’s indiscretions during the Covid pandemic — when, despite restrictions imposed on the general public, his staff and he were enjoying a tipple or three in the Downing Street garden — as “Partygate”.
Indeed that hardy source of not-always-reliable trivia, Wikipedia, tells us that over the past five decades there have been more than 200 -gate scandals. In the same year as president Nixon’s resignation, 1974, the explosive news that French wine-producers in the famed region of Bordeaux were adulterating their product was promptly dubbed “Winegate”. When in 1975, the American multinational United Brands was exposed as having paid bribes to the president of Honduras to cut export taxes on fruit imported by United Brands from his country, the media breathlessly dubbed it “Bananagate”. And the following year, when US congressmen were revealed to have accepted bribes from a lobbyist for South Korea, it was baptised “Koreagate”. By then it was clear that the suffix had arrived, as a convenient shorthand for lazy headline-writers. Add “-gate” to anything and you had a catchy term in a crisis; “gate” had become synonymous with “scandal”.
The US media is particularly culpable, as are that country’s politicians. In the 1990s, Republicans sought to get their own back after Watergate by trying to go after president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary by tagging any accusation against them with the now-notorious suffix. The tactic didn’t really work. It was tried at least a dozen times, as “-gate” was applied to one controversy after another by the Republicans to the Clintons, from “Troopergate” and “Travelgate” to “Monicagate” — for Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern, Monica Lewinsky. But they all failed to stick. And though Ms Lewinsky commanded oceans of media space, “Monicagate” never really endured as a lasting term, with most references calling it “the Lewinsky affair” or similar. Similarly, when American singer Janet Jackson, allegedly accidentally, bared her breast on live television during a concert, attempts to term it “Nipplegate” failed since the excuse she gave — a “wardrobe malfunction” — provided a far more memorable phrase than “-gate” did.
Still, the practice goes on, and Americans aren’t the only guilty party when it comes to tagging every scandal with “-gate”. In Britain in 1992, the tabloid newspaper The Sun revealed salacious details from phone conversations between Britain’s Princess Diana and her intimate friend James Gilbey, in the course of which the besotted lover affectionately called the Princess “Squidgy”. The British media promptly seized on the nickname to dub Diana’s scandal “Squidgygate”. In India in 2014 we had “Snoopgate”, involving the Gujarat police tracking the whereabouts of a private citizen.
When the Democrats found themselves in opposition to then-president Donald Trump, they persuaded the media to cover “Russiagate”, “Ukrainegate” and more. But it’s fair to say none of these “-gates” stayed open for long in our minds, perhaps because Mr Trump inflicted so many controversies on his nation that none retained a hold on the public imagination for long. Though Americans are once more riveted by a Trump scandal — the January 6 invasion of the Capitol by his supporters — the notorious suffix hasn’t cropped up. Of course, “January 6 gate” wouldn’t work very well — it would be too hard to say.
Still, even 50 years after Watergate, no one should bet on the disappearance of the suffix when the next controversy arises. Some habits (both political and lexical) die hard!
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Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language