No-one would ever accuse the average tabloid writer of a great love for the breadth of the English language. They go for a particular sensationalist and informal tone, with a specific vocabulary, and stick with it. Unlike broadsheet journalists, who tend to play it down the middle or go highbrow, they have a particular house style. This is even more true for tabloid sub-editors, who write the headlines, except for the odd occasion when they go above and beyond the call of duty.
I’m thinking of a specific journalistic trend, which, in fairness, isn’t restricted to tabloid journalism. And that trend is the tendency to add the suffix -gate to a word to refer to any manner of scandal. Some notable recent examples include Deflategate, Pizzagate, and Dieselgate. The trend comes from the Watergate scandal of 1972, in which Richard Nixon’s administration was found to be bugging various political enemies, information which came to light following a break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington D.C. It might actually be hard to remember that though, or some people may not be aware of it, because -gate has taken on a life of its own. This is clear from the sheer number of scandals with the suffix.
What I find most interesting is that, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, it began to be used in that manner very soon after the Watergate scandal. The first apparent example was in August 1972 in National Lampoon, just two months after the initial arrests for burglary:
There have been persistent rumors in Russia of a vast scandal.‥ Implicated in “the Volgagate” are a group of liberal officials.
There were also some cases of using Watergate or other forms of it as a word, usually a verb, but they didn’t take off. And that to me, is the most interesting aspect of the whole affair. At the time, Watergate becoming a byword for scandal probably seemed much more likely than -gate becoming the standard suffix to refer to a scandal. Watergate was such a huge affair at the time, plus, there’s no apparent link between the word gate and scandal. But some journalists obviously realised, perhaps not consciously, that adding -gate to a variety of words had quite a ring to it, and it stuck. There was probably a period of a few years or a decade when the Watergate scandal was in the public’s mind enough that referring to anything as somethinggate was a clear reference, and therefore an indication of a scandal. But then people started to think less about Watergate, but the suffix remained.
Which is quite indicative of how language evolves really. People can (and do) try to predict how speech will evolve, and some very broad patterns might be detected. But something no-one could ever predict might suddenly become popular, either because of who says it, because it’s easy to say, or it allows subeditors to use a single word to indicate to readers that they’re covering a complex scandal, and thus save space.
I think I can safely make one prediction though, and that is that this will be a year of many -gates. Though I doubt there’ll be a Trumpgate. He’ll cause so many scandals that they’ll all need their own names. Now how to name that one about that video…