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‘Hackergate’: the language of scandal

As the phone-hacking scandal continues to loom large in much of the world’s media, so we hear more and more instances of associated vocabulary – fit and proper, hacking, blagging. Not all of these terms are new – after all hacking has been around for quite some time – but they demonstrate how often scandals result in the introduction or popularization of particular vocabulary items.

Take the mother of all scandals – Watergate. It popularized a number of words or phrases which, although they had been around, hadn’t really entered the public consciousness. Smoking gun is but one example. But its greatest contribution to the English language is arguably the invention of the –gate combining form. It seems that nowadays no scandal is complete without the addition of –gate. ‘Hackergate’ is one such coinage which has, inevitably, appeared recently.

Eleanor Maier, Senior Assistant Editor at the Oxford English Dictionary, writes:

Only a year after Watergate, the scandal had become so well known that -gate became detached and was used to create names for other scandals. The OED’s first recorded example is from August 1972 in National Lampoon:

‘There have been persistent rumors in Russia of a vast scandal… Implicated in “the Volgagate” are a group of liberal officials.’

A few months later the –gate craze had shown no signs of abating, a fact signalled by the weary use of ‘inevitably’ in the following quotation:

‘Inevitably, the brouhaha of Bordeaux became known as Wine-gate.’

Here used to describe the place (Volgagate) or the commodity (Wine-gate) associated with a scandal, subsequent references extended to people or organizations identified as the perpetrators or victims of misconduct, as in the 1978 Billygate (involving Billy Carter, brother of the former US president) and the UK’s Totegate (1983) which investigated betting practices.

Now the term is applied, sometimes humorously or bathetically, to all kinds of scandals, controversies, and upsets, with recent US and UK examples including nipplegate, climategate, and Sachsgate. Although most of these formations are short-lived, –gate itself endures, having become a fully-fledged suffix, breaking all ties with the Watergate building. This fact is used to comic effect by the British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb in their sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look:

WEBB: Oh, the scandal in America. Yeah, that is interesting. That must be the biggest scandal since Watergategate.
MITCHELL: Watergategate? Isn’t it just Watergate?
WEBB: No. That would mean it was just about water. No, it was a scandal or gate, add the suffix gate, that’s what you do with a scandal, involving the Watergate Hotel. So it was called the Watergate scandal, or Watergategate.
MITCHELL: Well said.

The continued success of –gate shows how English-speakers have welcomed the means to describe any sort of scandalous event with a snappy suffix.

Read more about ‘the Watergate effect’