THE WATERGATE — Since a Washington hotel and office complex lent its name to the most important political crime in American history 40 years ago, "Watergate" has become synonymous with scandal. The suffix "-gate" has been affixed to dozens of scandals large and small (and very small), from Climategate, which rolled back decades of public trust building on the science of global warming, to Nipplegate, the infamous Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction," to Fajitagate, an incident involving three off-duty San Francisco police officers and a bag of steak fajitas that led to the toppling of two police chiefs.
And "-gate" long ago escaped the bounds of American politics and the English language. Column inch-limited headline writers in Argentina, Azerbaijan, Canada, Finland, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Poland, South Africa, and especially the U.K. have all imported "-gate" for their own homegrown scandals. Many involve sports. Some involve bolognese sauce: The Montreal restaurant community was rocked last year by Pastagate, when Québéc's language enforcers warned an upscale restaurant to stop using Italian words like "pasta" on their menu instead of the French equivalent. Very few rise near the level of Watergate.
We need a new term for these sub-gate scandals.
As British social scientist James Stanyer has noted, "Revelations are given the 'gate' suffix to add a thin veil of credibility, following 'Watergate', but most bear no resemblance to the painstaking investigation of that particular piece of presidential corruption." (Disclosure: The National Journal's offices are located in the Watergate complex, which, by the way, gets its name from the nearby mouth of the C&O Canal and/or a discontinued summer concert series.)
In fact, this degradation of scandal may have been the point of "-gate's" creation. Former Nixon speechwriter cum New York Times columnist William Safire was the first to detach "gate" from "water" as early as September 1974, and he went on to coin many more "gates," including some of the biggies: Briefingate, Travelgate, Whitewatergate, among a dozen or so others.
As Columbia Journalism School's Michael Schudson and others have argued, Safire's cornucopia of "-gates" was an attempt to distance himself from Nixon and minimize Watergate as just one of myriad quotidian bureaucratic indiscretions and silly tabloid scandals. Safire basically admitted as much years later, saying his favorite "-gates" were for minor scandals, like Doublebillingsgate, which involved some contractors double-billing the government.
Meanwhile, it works the other way around too. "Turning a scandal into a gate has often been an effort to use the emotive power of language for political advantage," Schudson explains. This is basically Darrell Issa's full-time job as chairman of the House Oversight Committee—to hang a "-gate" on as much of the Obama Administration as possible.
These criticisms are nothing new. Journalists and linguists have condemned the reductionism of "-gate" since at least the 1980s, and yet new scandals get gated all the time. It's a convenient heuristic. "All you people complaining about the use of -gate as an all-purpose suffix for scandals have never tried writing a headline, have you?" Politico Magazine Deputy Editor Blake Hounshell tweeted this week. Safire himself understood this: "The formulation with the -gate suffix is too useful to fade quickly," he wrote in his political dictionary.
While it'd probably be ideal to banish "-gate" entirely from the journalistic lexicon, that's clearly not going to happen. So maybe the next best thing is to add a second (or even third) suffix for lesser scandals that don't rise to "-gate" level imbroglio.
Of course, trying to determine what makes one scandal "real" and another not is likely a fool's errand in postmodern Washington, where truth is mostly relative. Trying to value scandals on their merits leads to what might be called Scandal Math. Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, once said that Benghazi was bigger than if you put "Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10." John W. Dean, Nixon's former White House counsel, meanwhile, wrote a book alleging that George W. Bush's "secret presidency" was "worse than Watergate." These things are too relative and tricky to weigh fairly.