This example starts with the very famous scandal with the very silly name, “Watergate,” in reference to the hotel where the drama went down. Which is funny, because no one is quite sure why the place is called that. “Watergate” refers to either 1) a formal staircase built into the Potomac riverside to welcome foreign dignitaries arriving by water taxi (in an area of Washington called “Foggy Bottom”), or 2) for the opening lock to the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (once known as “The Grand Old Ditch”).
Now, if you ask me, both Foggy Bottom and Grand Old Ditch would make truly great names for a political scandal but no, once the investigation of the Watergate Hotel became news, we were stuck with the mundane, “Watergate.”
Almost as soon as President Nixon resigned in August of 1974, the etymological vamping began. In September of 1974, former Nixon speechwriter and New York Times columnist William Safire coined the term, “Vietgate” in reference to a proposed pardon of Viet Nam era draft dodgers. He later referred to President Carter’s troubles with his brother as “Billygate.” Safire created a blizzard of scandalous “-gates,” and would later admit he was “seeking to minimize the relative importance of the crimes committed by his former boss with this silliness.”
It worked. And the pattern was set. In the years that followed, seemingly every scandal of any size was given the -gate. We’ve seen scandals involving office misbehavior (Filegate), babysitters (Nannygate), shoddy journalism (Rathergate), inappropriate selfies (Weinergate), and even a traffic jam created by an overweight, arrogant, obnoxious, beach-chair squatting, self-involved fan of the Dallas Cowboys (Bridgegate).
The practice is so common the Oxford English Dictionary defines “-gate” as a “suffix denoting an actual or alleged scandal, especially one that involves a cover up.” But the ironic overuse of the term (Nipplegate?) has achieved exactly what William Safire intended: a minimization of the importance of the “scandal” being referenced.
Some years ago I wrote that enough was enough, we needed to move on from all these -gates, even if “Deflategate” had a nice poetic touch. We needed to get back to much more colorful and unique labels for these moments in history, worthy of their importance and uniqueness. I mean, who doesn’t shudder to the sound of “Black Sox,” “The Whisky Ring,” “Chappaquiddick,” “Iran-Contra,” and “Berlusconi Bunga Bunga”?
And we should never forget the linguistic granddaddy of them all: “The Teapot Dome.” Now THAT’S how to brand an imbroglio!
But now I admit I was wrong. There was one more episode left in the tank, one last hurrah for our silly scandalous suffix. This one refers to a developing high-profile criminal investigation into the actions of a telegenic but brainless Congressman with a taste for fame, a nose just made for browning, a penchant for crossing state lines to pay for sex with minors, all while documenting it on his cell phone.
My fellow citizens, we have reached the summit. I present the superlative, the supreme, the sovereign of scandalous sobriquets.
– Mike Keeler