In politics, it takes little to turn a minor dust-up into a scandal. And thanks to the Nixon administration, American English now has a handy little suffix at the ready for the muckrakers: -gate.
This addition to English’s vernacular has miffed some grammar snobs, but this phenomenon is language in action. Contrary to what purists may say, language is not static; the brain is constantly analyzing the linguistic world—categorizing it, refining and redefining the rules. The emergence of the suffix -gate is just one example of this singularly human capacity at work.
The -gate suffix is brought to you courtesy of the Watergate scandal that toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon. A complex of five buildings in Washington, D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood (and now, the home of The Atlantic), the origins of the name “Watergate” are hazy. Some say it refers to a canal lock that sits across from the complex; others believe it comes from a set of stairs leading to the water that used to sit on the current site. But the meaning of “Watergate” is literal—it’s a compound of “water,” the thing you drink, and “gate,” the thing you open. But really, it was just a weird name for a building until it became famous.
How did the suffix -gate come into widespread use? It started with a semantic shift: As news of the break-in spread and the word “Watergate” permeated American culture, it stopped just being a name for a building and started acquiring the meaning of “scandal.”
Then the term “Watergate” underwent what linguists call “reanalysis.” Basically, people inferred that -gate was what gave the term the meaning of “scandal.” It’s an example of abductive reasoning; given a word’s meaning, people try to figure out how it’s derived from its component parts.
Most of the time, we’re spot on when we try to break things down. We all know that “buried” means two things: 1) putting something in the ground and covering it up and 2) that it happened in the past. Anyone with a basic understanding of English grammar knows “buried” comes from the root “bury” and the past-tense suffix “-ed.”
But sometimes, this logic is applied in a way that produces new words and meanings. Those who study language call linguistic innovations coined this way “backformations.”
English has a lot of backformations—hundreds. Through Latin, English acquired the noun “editor,” but there was originally no verb “edit.” At some point, the word underwent reanalysis; working backward, people reasoned that it was derived from the suffix “-or” (even though it wasn’t) and that “edit” was the original verb. Voilà, a new verb. Other examples of backformation include “aviate” from “aviator,” “televise” from “television,” and “tase” from “taser.”
The three previous examples are verbs derived from nouns, which comprise most English backformations. But the language also features verbs derived from adjectives (“peeve” from “peevish”); adjectives from adjectives (“couth” from “uncouth”); and nouns from adjectives (“flash” from “flashy”). What’s especially interesting about the suffix -gate is that most back-formations tend to produce content words—nouns, verbs, and adjectives—as opposed to function words like prepositions, helping verbs, or suffixes. The suffix -gate isn’t entirely a function word—it still retains the meaning of “scandal.” But it could one day undergo what linguists call “grammaticalization,” when content words because function words. The best-known instance of grammaticalization in English is the word “not,” which comes from Old English nawiht, meaning “no man.”
It’s important to note that reanalysis and grammaticalization are not a conscious processes. Our brains are constantly at work breaking down linguistic data; it’s all automatic. No native English speaker has to pause to think about forming the past tense.
In the same way there’s no one person sitting in a room analyzing word forms, there’s no one deciding which ones stick and which don’t. Armchair grammarians like your high-school English teacher who think the future of the language is doomed may decry the -gate suffix as tacky and improper, but someday it may be as common and respectable as the verb “edit.” Linguistic innovations, to their chagrin, tend to spread with the maddening swiftness of a lolcat meme.
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