Origin of the suffix ‘-gate’

Those who have been following the news closely know by now that ‘Coalgate’ has nothing to do with the toothpaste. In the same way, Porngate does not refer to a gate which opens into a place where porn is legally available.


The usage of gate implies that it is synonymous with a scam. These days it could mean any scam, irrespective of the magnitude. But when it was first used, it was meant to indicate an episode in American politics that had grave repercussions.


The suffix owes its origin to the Watergate scandal in 1972 in the United States, which led to the ouster of that nation’s president. Watergate was the name of an office complex in Washington DC. It headquartered the Democratic National Committee.


The then president Richard Nixon was running for re-election. The Republican Party’s committee to re-elect the president had hired five men to break into the Democratic Party office in the Watergate complex. These men were arrested and indicted for conspiracy, burglary and violation of federal wiretapping laws. This proved to be just the beginning of the exposure of Nixon’s illegal acts, which eventually cost him his presidency.


In the elections, Nixon defeated his Democratic opponent George McGovern to return to power, but the investigations that followed the Watergate break-in pulled him down. It was revealed that Nixon’s staff had commissioned and executed illegal acts, and were guilty of campaignfraud, political espionage and sabotage, break-ins, improper tax audits and unauthorised wiretapping. The Washington Post carried a spate of articles on the investigations and attributed them to an anonymous source they called Deep Throat.


After two years of investigation, Nixon and his aides were implicated. Nixon resigned in August 1974, the only US president to resign from office.From then on the suffix gate has been appended to scams and scandals. It was used by the National Lampoon magazine in 1973 for a satirical story about an imagined Russian scandal, which the writer called Volgagate


Nixon’s former speech writer William Safire is said to have popularised the use of -gate. Safire was also a New York Times columnist, grammarian and lexicographer, and used the suffix indiscriminately in his columns for all scandals large and frivolous. Some suspect that in doing so, Safire wanted to make all scandals sound as big as Watergate. In the process, he aimed at restoring Nixon’s image. His earliest use of -gate was in 1974 when he wrote of Vietgate, a proposed pardon of the Watergate criminals and Vietnam War draft dodgers. In a 1996 magazine piece, Noam Cohen assembled 20 -gates coined by Safire. Cohen wrote that Safire might have been “rehabilitating Nixon by relentlessly tarring his successors with the same rhetorical brush—diminished guilt by association.”


Writer and journalist Eric Alterman in his book Sound and Fury: The Making of Punditocracy, claims that Safire admitted to him to the intention of popularising – gate. As Alterman puts it, “Psychologically, he may have been seeking to minimise the relative importance of the crimes committed by his former boss with this silliness.”


Without doubt, Safire has succeeded. Nearly 40 years later, in India we continue to use -gate as shorthand for political scandals: Porngate for the incident where Karnataka MLAs were caught on camera watching sex videos while the assembly was in session. We also use it for scandals of bigger magnitude like with Coalgate, where a Comptroller and Auditor-General report has blamed the UPA government for not auctioning coal and causing losses of up to Rs 10.7 lakh crore to the exchequer.



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