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Last updated at 15:35 BST, Tuesday, 03 May 2011

-gate

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In this week's The English We Speak programme, we're marking World Press Freedom Day. How did the Watergate scandal of the 1970s affect the English language?

American ex-President Richard Nixon

President Nixon had to resign after Watergate

The script for this programme

William: Hello, I'm William Kremer and this is The English We Speak.

Wang Fei: Hi there. I'm Wang Fei.

William: So, Wang Fei, today is 3 May.

Wang Fei: Yes.

William: Do you know what 3 May is?

Wang Fei: Hmm… a Tuesday?

William: Yes, it's a Tuesday, but it's not just any Tuesday. Today is World Press Freedom Day. This is the day that the United Nations has chosen to highlight the importance of a free press around the world.

Wang Fei: A free press. So, newspapers that are free to write anything they think the public need to know and TV news that can report anything?

William: Yes they can report anything, including things that look bad for the government! Scandals.

Wang Fei: A scandal, so something very bad that damages someone's reputation.

William: Exactly. And one of the most famous scandals from American history is the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s.

Wang Fei: Watergate… that was why President Nixon had to resign wasn't it?

William: Exactly, yes, because he was shown to have lied to the American people and basically obstructed the course of justice. The whole thing started when five men were arrested for breaking into an office block called Watergate. This was where the Democratic Party had their headquarters. Later on, the men were linked to the campaign to re-elect President Nixon, who was in the Republican Party.

Wang Fei: Well, this is very interesting but what has it got to do with The English We Speak, William?

William: Well, because Watergate was such a massive scandal, Wang Fei, the word -gate is now sometimes used as a suffix to suggest that something is a scandal. So, to give you an example from last year, when Gordon Brown was trying to get re-elected as British Prime Minister, he was overheard calling an old lady a "bigot" – a very strong word for somebody who is intolerant and close-minded. Anyway, this was a big scandal and it came to be known in the media as 'bigotgate'.

Wang Fei: Bigotgate. That sounds almost a little bit funny.

William: Yes, you're right. I think using -gate on the end of a word can make it seem a little humorous. This term -gate is used more in the USA, but another recent example from the UK is 'Climategate' – that was when some emails and other documents from a university in England led to people asking questions about the way that scientists researched climate change. Climategate.

Wang Fei: So, can we use –gate in normal English conversation too?

William: Yes, you can – if you want to make a joke. Listen to this:

Man A: Have you seen Mark recently?

Man B: Mark – he hasn't spoken to me since beergate!

Man A: Beergate? What do you mean?

Man B: We had a big argument because I said Mark never bought a round of beer in the pub! He got very upset and went home.

Wang Fei: So in that example, the speaker coined the word beergate to describe an argument about paying for beer!

William: Yeah, which is obviously very silly. But of course, this suffix -gate is used in very serious situations too. And it was thanks to members of the free press, including the Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, that the public came to know about Watergate.

Wang Fei: Yes. Check our website this week for more information and learning English programmes about World Press Freedom Day. Goodbye.

William: Bye!

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