Why Horsegate Should Ride Away

It must be obvious by now just how much I admire the English language and its regular diet of new words. But even I have my limits.

So what has promoted my ire? It’s very simple. It’s Horsegate. It’s the ‘scandal’ over the retired police horse cared for by Rebekah Brooks and subsequently ridden by David Cameron. The whole equine fiasco has been dubbed ‘horsegate’ by the media and the social media world.

And I hate it! Not the story, which is of course fascinating, amusing and worrying in almost equal measures. No, I hate the way that every vaguely salacious or scandalous story which hits the news and lasts for longer than about 20 minutes automatically receives a ‘-gate’ at the end of it as a word by which it will be referred to for evermore.

It’s lazy. It’s cliched. But above all, it offends my linguistic sensibilities. It is derived, of course, from the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. This has led to the belief that you can borrow the gate from the building where it took place and simply append it to anything. And it’s plain wrong. There is nothing inherent in the word ‘gate’ that means anything to do with scandal. Imagine if the Nixon scandal had centred around the Waterfish building, we’d all be discussing the horsefish story now.

Now I know what you’re thinking. I have continually espoused a theory of language growing and evolving, of words taking on new meanings, and if gate has grown to be imbued with scandal-related meaning when used as a suffix, surely I should applaud that, that is what language does. But on this occasion, I am going to stick to my guns. I think it is ugly and unnecessary. A glance down Wikipedia’s list of ‘gate’ usages convinces me I am right, so ludicrous are many of the entries. I think Fajitagate and Toiletgate are possibly the pick of an appalling bunch.

I love the ever-changing nature of English. But this constant neologism is almost scandalous. It’s just that you’ll never hear me refer to it as languagegate.

5 thoughts on “Why Horsegate Should Ride Away

  1. Postageincluded

    I’d call you a killjoy if I wasn’t still laughing over Fajitagate and Toiletgate!

    Mitchell & Webb did a sketch on this a few years ago, renaming the Watergate scandal as Watergategate – with David Mitchell’s usual comic detatchment on his own pedantry.

    That the -gate suffix is funny, and is treated as a joke, may not mean it’s reached the end of its useful life. From its inception the suffix was used humourously. That’s what kept it going among the generation (myself included) who watched the unfolding of the Watergate story, and understood its significance. In those early years adding -gate had the feeling of linguistic play – like Humpty-Dumpty’s “portmanteau” words; it made sense but we all new that this wasn’t how words were really constructed.

    Now -gate has to be explained to the younger generation, and they don’t see the joke or the significance. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end? There are good reasons for thinking that’s not so:
    1) Those same young people now understand “-gate” and use it even without knowing the story of its origin.
    2) 24 hour news is here to stay.
    3) There is an ever increasing supply of political scandals.
    4) The -gate suffix is too useful to drop in a shortwinded age.. “The story about David Cameron riding Rebekah Brookes’ horse which she had borrowed from the Met Police” doesn’t fit too easily into a soundbite or a text or a tweet, and isn’t memorable; “horsegate” does.and is.

    On a related point, new suffixes don’t enter the language very often, and this may be the only one in my lifetime but the -s in the Meerkat “Laters” may be in the early stages of becoming another (I have heard “Tomorrows” already). Oddly, both are suffixes that denote ellipsis.

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