Watergate: How a scandal produced a suffix | cultural | Report on arts, music and lifestyle in Germany | DW

On June 17, 1972, during a presidential election year in the United States, five men stormed into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington.

Their mission? Bugging DNC offices with listening devices to obtain incriminating material that could undermine Democratic candidate Senator George McGovern and thereby secure President Richard Nixon’s re-election.

After news broke of the burglary, early media reports suggested there might be a connection to the White House. But Nixon maintained he had no knowledge of the case and was subsequently re-elected in November. In January 1973, the perpetrators were tried and convicted for the burglary.

Subsequent investigations eventually implicated Nixon’s campaign committee and members of his administration, and revealed that the president himself knew of the action and was involved in its cover-up. To avoid impeachment and impeachment, Nixon became the first – and only – U.S. president to step down, eventually stepping down on August 8, 1974.

Richard Nixon flashes victory sign as he boards helicopter after resigning

Repeated media mentions of the word “Watergate” during a years-long controversy have made it synonymous not only with the site of a break-in but also with the scandal itself.

Why the name “Watergate”?

Now an architectural landmark on the US National Register of Historic Places, perhaps the most infamous address in the United States was originally named for pragmatic reasons.

Completed in 1971, the Watergate Complex was the first mixed-use development in Washington. Sitting on the banks of the Potomac River, it consisted of office buildings, a hotel, and residential blocks, and in its heyday was the preferred residential address of politicians.

In his 2009 book “Presidential Power on Trial: From Watergate to All the President’s Men”, William Noble wrote that the complex “takes its name from the fact that it overlooks the ‘gate’ that regulated the flow of water from the Potomac River in the Tidal Basin at rising tide.”

Watergate complex in Washington in 1965

The Watergate complex may have seemed futuristic at the time

Shortcut for Scandals

Today, “-gate” has become a default suffix for any controversial headline-grabbing event, from the political to the frivolous.

Case in point: Nipplegate — that split-second “wardrobe malfunction” that saw singer Janet Jackson’s chest exposed during a concert with Justin Timberlake at Super Bowl halftime in 2004.

The suffix was first used shortly after the Watergate scandal, when the American magazine National Lampoon published a satirical article about a fake Russian scandal and dubbed it “Volgagate”.

Notably, former Nixon speechwriter William Safire often used the suffix in his columns to The New York Times writing about post-Nixon scandals during his 30-year career at the newspaper. He later admitted he did so to deflect criticism of his former boss’ misdeeds.

Other infamous “-gates” involving US presidents include “Monicagate”/”Lewinskygate” in the late 90s when President Bill Clinton first denied and then admitted to having an affair with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

USA Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton

Monica Lewinsky (left) recently produced a 10-episode series about the events surrounding her affair with President Bill Clinton

Then there was “Ukrainegate” in 2019, in which President Donald Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, in an effort to obtain information that would be detrimental to Biden. senior in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

‘-gate’ goes global

But the impact of the suffix has gone beyond American borders and even beyond the English language.

France had “Winegate” in 1973, when a fraudulent scheme passed off cheap wine as expensive Bordeaux.

“Valijagate,” in 2007, involved Venezuelan-American entrepreneur Guido Antonini Wilson arriving in Argentina on a private flight hired by Argentine and Venezuelan state officials while carrying $800,000 in cash, which he did not have. not declared. Valija is Spanish for suitcase.

German Volkswagen car logo picture

Volkswagen still faces “Dieselgate”

Germany had “Dieselgate” which began in 2015, when German automaker Volkswagen admitted to installing emission control devices in its vehicles. The revelation and subsequent investigations had global implications for the company; Following six-figure settlements and fines in the US, he recently agreed to pay £193m (€227m; $242m) in a settlement at the out of court in a class action brought by some 91,000 drivers in the UK.

Italy, meanwhile, took a leaf from the book and fashioned its own suffix. A scandal from the early 1990s involving politicians receiving bribes in exchange for public works contracts has been dubbed “Tangentopoli” – “tangent” being “bribe” and “polite” coming from the Greek” polis”, meaning “city”. Subsequent scandals were affixed with “polite”, such as Bancopoli in the mid-2000s, referring to financial and banking scandals; and “Calciopoli”, a match-fixing scandal involving Italy’s top professional football league. “Calcio” is Italian for football.

Lazy or smart?

Some grammarians and critics find it annoying that the media add the suffix “-gate” to any polemic, which could trivialize the seriousness of some wrongdoings over others.

In recent examples, the UK’s ‘Partygate’ – in which government-sponsored parties have taken place that flouted the rules during national COVID-19 lockdowns – is not the equivalent of ‘Slapgate’ , when actor Will Smith slapped 2022 Oscars host Chris Rock after the latter joked about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and her condition of alopecia.

Two men dressed in suits, one slaps the other

Will Smith slapping Chris Rock was unsurprisingly dubbed #slapgate

However, others argue that “-gate” has acquired a certain gravity and that adding it to a problem raises people’s antennae.

“Its usage in journalism is so widespread that people with no knowledge of the Watergate scandal would have no problem understanding what a word like Bloodgate meant,” said Ian Brookes, Consulting Editor of the Collins English Dictionary, at the BBC in 2013. .

Described as ‘rugby’s biggest scandal’, Bloodgate happened in 2009 when English rugby union team Harlequins played against Irish side Leinster. An England player faked an injury by biting off a fake blood capsule, facilitating a rally with a teammate in hopes of scoring a win.

Whether loved or reviled, “-gate” has been – and will certainly remain – a staple part of the language for scandals of all kinds.

A 2010 BBC comedy sketch from “That Mitchell and Webb Look” raised a point about the use of this suffix.

If “-gate” is to be a standalone suffix denoting impropriety of some sort, then shouldn’t the scandal that started it all be called “Watergate-gate”?

Edited by: Cristina Burack

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