Why is every scandal called a -gate?

On 8 August 1974, Richard Nixon became the first – and only - US president to resign from office.

His resignation meant he avoided an impeachment trial and possible removal from office over his role in the Watergate scandal.

Watergate has been described as the biggest political scandal in American history – but what actually happened? And why are other high-profile stories in politics, sport, entertainment and more also given the suffix ‘-gate’, still to this day?

What was Watergate?

The name Watergate was used to describe the whole scandal, the dates of which spanned more than two years, but Watergate itself is a complex of buildings, including a hotel and offices, based in Washington DC.

Back in the 1970s, one of the offices was the home of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the governing body of the Democratic Party, one of the two major political groups in the USA alongside the Republicans.

In June 1972, five men were arrested trying to bug the offices of the DNC with a listening device during that year’s election campaign. The investigation traced those responsible back to members of a Nixon support group, the Campaign to Re-elect the President.

The five burglars and two accomplices were convicted the following January and given lengthy sentences. John Sirica, the judge overseeing the case felt that the men – who maintained a silence throughout the trial – were covering for more high-profile names, as he said in his 1979 book, To Set The Record Straight.

Richard Nixon was the 37th president of the United States, winning two elections and serving from January 1969 to August 1974

The judge’s suspicions were somewhat confirmed when one of the guilty men wrote to him alleging a cover-up, implicating senior officials within the Nixon administration.

That sparked a series of hearings in the US Senate – the upper chamber of the United States congress – investigating the conduct of several of Nixon’s key allies and the president himself.

Initially, Nixon did not fully comply with the investigations and refused to release taped conversations about the Watergate affair, instead only allowing redacted transcripts to be published.

But in the face of mounting political and public pressure, the tapes were eventually released and one showed Nixon had been aware of the break-in cover-up, and had attempted to block the FBI investigation.

Days later, facing an impeachment trial that would almost certainly have resulted in his removal from office, he chose to resign instead – leading to his vice-president Gerald Ford replacing him.

Famous -gates in history

  • Pizzagate - In 2004, Arsenal went to Old Trafford unbeaten in their previous 49 league matches. Their opponents Manchester United ended that run with a 2-0 victory. In the aftermath of the game, the two teams argued in the tunnel and it was reported that someone threw a slice of pizza, hitting then United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in the face. Years later, former Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas admitted he’d lobbed the slice.

  • Horsegate - The 2013 horse meat scandal saw foods advertised as containing beef found to contain undeclared ingredients, uncluding horse meat.

  • Bingate - Back in series five of The Great British Bake-Off, contestant Ian’s ice cream didn’t set for his baked Alaska. It appeared as if fellow baker Diane had taken it out of the freezer for less than a minute. As he was called to bring his showstopper to the judges, he threw the semi-frozen dessert into the bin and was eliminated for not offering anything to taste.

  • Bloodgate - In rugby union’s Heineken Cup in 2009, Tom Williams of Harlequins followed orders from his team’s coach Dean Richards to pretend to be injured, using fake blood in order to qualify for a blood replacement substitution.

  • Woollygate - Perhaps the most serious of them all, beloved dog Gromit was sentenced to life in prison for his part in a sheep racketeering scandal. A newspaper described the incident as Woollygate. Wallace’s faithful pet was, of course, innocent and had been set up by evil robot Preston in the 1995 short film A Close Shave.

Why did ‘-gate’ stick around?

"What? Take the last four letters of a previous scandal or hotel and add it on to all future scandals?

"That can't be the system."

Comedy duo Mitchell and Webb’s 2006 sketch looked at the pattern of naming scandals with the suffix ‘-gate’ and raised a valid point about its repeated use.

(Although, as Robert Webb also pointed out, by the naming convention we now know, it should have been called Watergategate.)

Watergate was used initially in newspapers in August 1972 to describe the ongoing political controversy. The following year, American magazine National Lampoon referred to a situation in Russia as Volgagate which the Oxford English Dictionary says was the first subsequent use of ‘-gate’.

From there, -gates cropped up in print quite frequently, with one writer credited with introducing more than 20 different terms through his career. Former Nixon speechwriter William Safire repeatedly used the suffix in his New York Times columns, giving rise to its prominence and popular use.

Years later, Noam Cohen wrote in the New York Magazine that this may have been a deliberate ploy on Safire’s part.

In listing multiple instances of its use in political columns, Cohen said that Safire was attempting to rehabilitate Nixon's reputation by "relentlessly tarring his successors with the same rhetorical brush" - in order to diminish the former President's guilt by association.

Safire later admitted to author Eric Alterman that he used -gate a lot in order to try to minimise the impact of the crimes of his old boss.

Global -gates

It’s not just an English language phenomenon though. The convention of adopting suffixes from major scandals to describe other, subsequent controversial incidents has also been adopted in Italy.

In the early 1990s, a scandal centred on a criminal investigation in Milan exposed corruption and bribery among politicians and businesses.

The press called the scandal Tangentopoli, formed from the Italian noun ‘tangente’, meaning bribe, and the suffix ‘-poli’, used to designate a city or town - literally referring to Milan as Bribesville.

As with Watergate, the pattern remained, with -poli taking on a new meaning to refer to a scandal, with famous uses including Calciopoli, the 2006 Italian football match-fixing controversy.

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