June 17, 1972, was a bad day for Richard Nixon. Early that morning, five men were arrested for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee—five men who worked for Nixon’s re-election campaign.
The arrests were the beginning of the end for the Nixon presidency. It took more than two years, but the scandal that flowed from the burglary eventually forced him to resign.
Whatever harm may have been done to the country, that 4-decade-old scandal did have one lasting benefit. The benefit came not from Nixon or his people, or even the Democrats. It came from the building itself: Washington’s Watergate Hotel and Office Building.
For most people most of the time, Watergate refers to a political scandal rather than a physical structure. Google it and the first page of organic (i.e., nonadvertisement) results is dedicated entirely to the break-in and its consequences.
But the real benefit comes from the second syllable, -gate. Attach it to the end of just about any name of word, and people will know you’re talking about a scandal.
Wikipedia has a page dedicated to various -gates, complete with more than a hundred examples. In politics they range from a 1976 financial scandal called Koreagate to Hillary Clinton’s current email woes, which have been called Emailgate. In sports, Tiger Woods’s marital problems are Tigergate, while accusations that the New England Patriots intentionally deflated footballs for the 2015 AFC Championship are Deflategate. The gate suffix has even made its way into technology, with Antennagate referring to issues with phone reception in Apple’s iPhone 4.
“Gate,” in this case, is known as a “libfix,” a term coined by Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky in 2010. A libfix is a string of letters liberated from its original word and affixed (as prefix or suffix) to another.
I love libfixes—how could I not?—but I didn’t know they were a thing until Stan Carey discussed them for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Besides -gate, he mentions -pocalypse (e.g., snowpocalypse), -zilla (e.g., bridezilla), and -preneur_ (e.g., solopreneur). He also taught me a new word: morpheme, which Macmillan says is the smallest unit of meaning in a language. Go figure.
Over the coming weeks I’ll discuss the derivation and uses of my own favorite libfixes. I’ll have a ball writing these posts; I hope my mansplaining is blogtacular for you as well.