‘Kerngate: Body blow, not knockout,” said a front-page headline in the January 10 Jerusalem Post in an allusion to allegations of financial impropriety made against Prime Minister Sharon and his two sons in connection with money received by them from Anglo-Jewish businessman Cyril Kern. And now that we have a Jewish context to discuss it in, the question for today’s column is: Just what part of speech is “-gate” and how are we to classify it?
The ending “-gate” in the sense of “scandal” goes back of course to the Watergate affair that forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. “Watergate” was the name of the Washington building in which Democratic Party national headquarters were broken into in 1972 by Republican operatives looking for incriminating election-year material, and almost immediately the second half of this name was detached by the media and applied to various other shady operations. The earliest example of such usage, as far as I have been able to determine, was the 1973 “Volgagate,” referring to financial scandals in Russia. In 1974 came “Winegate,” in reference to a French vintners’ scandal, and “Laborgate,” in connection with trade union shenanigans in Southeast Asia. 1977 saw “Koreagate” and “Applegate” (named for hanky-panky in the Big Apple of New York City), after which the gates, as it were, opened wide. Since then, to name but a few, we have had “Irangate,” “Billygate” (involving the brother of President Jimmy Carter), “Ferrarogate” (for Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice-presidential candidate), “Iraqgate,” “Rubbergate,” “Whitewatergate” and many others.
“-Gate” has by now become a good English… what? Certainly not a good English word, because it isn’t a word. The way to determine this is very simple. A word is a unit of speech that, when it stands alone, can be used in a sentence and means something definite to at least some listeners. This is true of such varied words as “tree,” “jump,” “ridiculous,” “maybe,” “ugh,” “unconstitutional” and “hemidemisemiquaver,” and it is also true of “gate” in a number of meanings — but not in the meaning of a scandal. Try saying to someone, “It looks like my Uncle Bob the accountant got himself into a bad gate,” and you’ll get a blank stare. To get “-gate” to mean “scandal,” you have to combine it with another word.
This is why the only up-to-date dictionaries in which I have been able to find “-gate,” the 1997 Webster’s New World College Dictionary Third Edition and the 1994 Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, both classify it as a “combining form.” When I looked up the term “combining form” in regular dictionaries, the most complete definition of it that I was able to find was in 1961’s Webster’s New Collegiate. A combining form, Webster’s says, is “a word or a word element (a formation on a Greek or Latin stem, or an English word used without change) used with another word or element to form a compound, as in phonograph, graphophone. trademark, crackbrained. Combining forms have concrete sense and co-ordinating or modifying function (as in medicolegal, automobile), as contrasted with prefixes and suffixes, which have abstract sense and derivative, formative or inflectional function (as in illegal, deadly).”
And indeed, “-gate,” although it must be suffixed to the end of a word, would appear, according to this definition, to have all the characteristics of a combining form rather than of a suffix — except for one thing. Tell me which of the following three sentences is impossible in English, and you will begin to see what that is: 1) “Winegate was an embarrassment for the French.” 2) “The wine scandal was an embarrassment for the French.” 3) “The Winegate was an embarrassment for the French.” The answer is of course 3). And why is the third choice impossible? Because the first two are equivalent — that is, “Winegate” means “the wine scandal,” so that saying “the Winegate” would be like saying “the the wine scandal.” In other words, the element “-gate,” when compounded with noun X, not only attributes a scandal to X, but adds an implied definite article that makes this scandal a specific one.
But adding a definite article, even if only implicitly, is — to return to our Webster’s New Collegiate definition — acting like a suffix and not like a combining form, since it gives “-gate” an abstract and inflectional function, like that of “-ly” in “deadly,” and not just a concrete and modifying one, like “-mark” in “trademark.” And yet since “-gate” at the same time does function like “-mark” in “trademark,” it cannot strictly speaking be considered a suffix either. In fact, it seems to be a strange kind of hybrid, half one and half the other, a suffico-combining-form, to coin a new combine.
Have we discovered a hitherto unknown type of speech particle, the linguistic equivalent of the gluon or muon in physics? To make that claim we would have to be convinced that no previously known suffico-combining-forms exist. Offhand, I can’t think of any. Can you?