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David Marsh, in the regular language column at The Guardian, writes about the increasing frequency of -gate derivatives in recent journalism, and cites Language Log:

All these gates are examples of a snowclone, a type of cliched phrase defined by the linguist Geoffrey Pullum as "a multi-use, customisable, instantly recognisable, timeworn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants". Examples of a typical snowclone are: grey is the new black, comedy is the new rock'n'roll, Barnsley is the new Naples, and so on.

Xgate as a snowclone? Not quite. I see the conceptual similarity, but the very words he quotes show that I originally defined the concept (in this post) as a phrase or sentence template. The Xgate frame is a lexical word-formation analog of it, an extension of the concept from syntax into derivational morphology.

I was looking at things like In space, no one can hear you X", where the customizability is that you get to choose the verb X, but the laziness is that you don't have to do anything else, and just about everyone will know you are alluding to the poster slogan for Alien. The concept was named later by someone else, Glen Whitman, who chose "snowclone" because of the practice of cloning variants of my original example, a rather complex and ill-defined one: If the Eskimos have N words for snow, X have {even more / just as many / a similar number} for Y. (Eskimo-snow snowclones are still alive and well, and are being produced by lazy and unimaginative writers everywhere, just about every day; see the recent ridiculous remark that Arnold Zwicky spotted about North Koreans having many words for "prison".)

Steve Jones, as usual, sets David Marsh right on this point in his comment below the article.

The -gate suffix certainly is being heavily used; and it is an interesting point that it is not us (the "normal people" of whom Marsh speaks) who are using it; it is journalists, and almost only them. The etymology is by a process called metanalysis, rather like when helicopter was mistakenly taken to be a combination of heli- with copter (it's really from helico- "like a helix" plus pter "wing"), and new derivatives like heliport were made with the wrongly analysed bits.

What does -gate contribute to the meaning of a derived word? Xgate is a custom-made proper noun denoting the recent newsworthy scandal or brouhaha involving X. One of the latest in the UK, Irisgate, concerns a female politician with the unbelievably evocative name Mrs. Robinson who had an affair with a young man a full four decades younger than her (koo-kook-a-joo!) — and then (why can't they just have good clean sex, these politicians, instead of bringing corruption into it?) did some backroom work to help him get financing for his business. Robinsongate would have done fine, but her first name is Iris, and Irisgate is shorter.

Brevity, scandal, and quick-fix ways of writing stuff without actually having to think out new descriptive vocabulary or construct new phrases and sentences; that's what keeps Britain the newspaper capital of the planet. Most mornings at the Indian shop by the bus stop on Dundas Street in Edinburgh I see no less than twelve different newspapers on the rack with twelve different front page headline stories. One will have a new scandal about apparently corrupt uses of politicians' expenses payments (expensegate) while another uncovers a scandal about the false intelligence support that permitted the last prime minister to take the UK into a foreign war (Iraqgate) while a third finds out that the married captain of the England soccer team, John Terry, seduced the girlfriend of one of his own players, Wayne Bridge, in Bridge's own house. Yes, the word Terrygate has been coined already.

There was an additional twist to Terrygate, having to do with Britain's astonishing willingness to trammel free speech and gag the press. The story was nosed out by The News of the World, but Terry obtained a court order, known as a super-injunction, that not only forbade the paper from printing its story, but also forbade all newspapers from reporting that such an injunction existed!

I imagine that American readers of Language Log will be quite surprised at the UK's legislative and judicial arrangements for regulating linguistic expression, which seem more North Korean than European sometimes (though we have fewer words for prison, of course).

Injunctiongate did all come unglued, though: an appeal led to the lifting of the super-injunction, and all the newspapers were suddenly allowed to print everything about the (now much juicier) story, which ruined the News of the World's scoop. Now the Terrygate issue is all about whether the manager of the England team (hilariously, an Italian, Fabio Capello — you can't make this stuff up) should fire John Terry from his job. If he does, the same papers that have gloried in Terry's vile sexual treachery ("love rat" is the term the tabloids like) will doubtless make new shock-horror-scandal-probe stories about this Italian sacking England's captain and endangering England's chances in some tournament or other. If England loses the next game, the scandal will probably morph into Capellogate.

But I seem to have wandered a little from my original topic of English lexical word formation. Sorry about that.


  1. Peter Taylor said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 7:29 am

    I read an article on scandals in sport a month ago which begins by asking "When does a cheat become a gate?" The author, Simon Barnes, argues that scandals have to be sufficiently important to qualify for the suffix, but his point is weakened by the fact that one of his two examples of scandals which didn't make the grade was in fact referred to as Tigergate in some circles.

  2. davek said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 7:31 am

    I can see why you don't want to accept Xgate as a snowclone, but it seems an unnecessarily pedantic distinction to discount it on the grounds that it's a single word rather than a phrase or sentence. Surely it functions in exactly the same way as a snowclone – it's more than just a custom-made noun, it's a fully fledged idiom.

    Perhaps the definition of snowclone should be expanded to include Xgate as a variant?

    [Very simple answer, davek (and I should have made this point): your words are not expected to be original — with the relatively rare exception of entirely novel coinings, you make them up from standard bits and pieces: geo plus ology yields geology "the study of the earth", and thus photo plus ology to yield photology if you want a word for "the study of light", etc., and it's not lazy to use these bits in the standard stereotyped ways, it's pretty much de rigeur. But your sentences, or at least most of them, and a large proportion of the phrases in them, at least if you're a writer, are supposed to be new. The number of words you know is merely in the tens of thousands. The number of sentences is unbounded, and probably triillions of them have already been used. To be making up your sentences in standard and stereotyped ways is to be a fairly lazy composer of prose, or even a plagiarist. In fact spotting phrases that have occurred before is exactly the tool we use to identify literary plagiarists. —GKP]

  3. Stephen Jones said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 7:55 am


    If we follow your idea then all suffixes become snowclones, and so presumably would all prefixes.

  4. Stephen Jones said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:02 am

    (though we have fewer words for prison, of course).

    Do we?

    [I haven't a clue. I don't pay attention to this nonsense about how many words for things people have. It was just a non-serious allusion to the reference to Zwicky above. —GKP]

  5. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:12 am

    Thinking myself witty, I figured the original should now be known as Watergategate to avoid confusion. But then I saw Google offered 189,000 hits for that term, including Mitchell and Webb's take at on it from about 3:00 here. "No, it was a scandal or gate – add the suffix gate, that’s what you do with a scandal – involving the Watergate Hotel. So it was called the Watergate scandal, or Watergategate".

  6. Roy said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:40 am

    Funny, I haven't yet heard "Tigergate" here in the US in reference to Tiger Woods' bedroom indiscretions. I hereby coin the term and demand copyright!

  7. dw said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:54 am

    For the benefit of those outside the UK, it should probably be explained that "Indian shop" means "place selling newspapers, cigarettes, etc. owned by first- or second-generation immigrants from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh". Not, as might be supposed, "place selling Indian stuff".

    Among the daily headlines you would also be likely to find cures for cancer, causes of cancer and fake "PC gone mad" stories

    [Thank you, dw. Exactly right. It's a kind of general store run by people who I suspect might be Pubjabi-speaking Pakistanis, though I haven't asked. They sell fruit, vegetables, milk, newspapers, candy bars, canned beans, newspapers, and most other things you might run out of on a random day, and they come from the Indian subcontinent, and I'm just so glad they are there. God bless Britain's Indo-Pakistani immigrants; they improve life in the UK immensely. The nutballs in the British National Party who want them gone are simply out of their minds. —GKP]

  8. Cecily said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    You'd better edit Wikipedia, because that (currently) lists x-gate as an example of a snowclone:

    [Oh, Cecily, I have a department to run and research to do. I can't become a Wikipedian too. I haven't even had time to see Avatar yet. Couldn't you edit it for me? Please? Pretty please? —GKP]

  9. davek said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    OK, Geoff, I take the point, but the difference between Xgate and other regular suffix/prefix formations as Stephen mentions, or words such as geology, is that Xgate is idiomatic – its meaning cannot be fathomed from the literal meaning of its component parts, yet we readily recognise and understand "Terrygate" to mean "the scandal involving Terry".

    [I just don't think there's anything idiomatic about it. The meaning contribution is compositional. As you say: Xgate means "recent significant scandal involving X in some way". That's just like Xology meaning "academic field of knowledge broadly related to X in some way". —GKP]

    As you say, it's the conceptual similarity that links Xgate to snowclones, even if the syntactical form is different. If the definition of snowclone can't accommodate Xgate, then perhaps it deserves its own generic term that could also encompass similar examples (not that any spring readily to mind) – how about "watergategate"?

  10. Laura said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 9:47 am

    I have always thought of the "-gate" suffix as behaving more like a cranberry morpheme.

    [Naah. You haven't thought this through. A cranberry morph is one that might seem to have a meaning contribution if only it weren't entirely limited to occurring with some other morph in a way that precludes it meeting the definition of a minimal meaningful unit: while blueberry might seem to be composed of blue and berry, each having their own separate meanings, the trouble with cranberry is that the cran- part never puts in an appearance except when attached to berry, so it isn't independently verifiable as meaningful in its own right. (That's the old story, anyway; it antedates cranapple, which sort of begins to undermine its status.) The thing about -gate is that it's not like that at all: while cran- appears (almost) nowhere except prefixed to berry, the -gate morph appears promiscuously with any noun you might like to pick, and contributes a clear separate meaning in every such case. It's the opposite of the cran- case. —GKP]

  11. Ken Grabach said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:00 am

    @ Roy,
    I think you better apply for a trademark. Ideas and phrases cannot be copyrighted. A text can be, so write yourself something using the phrase, and then you can get it copyrighted, but you can't sue anyone else for using the phrase. You would just have the earliest documented usage.

  12. Cecily said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    @Roy/Ken – too late:,sport,other-sport,tigergate-swings-back-to-rachel-uchitel-rumour-tiger-woods

  13. Zwicky Arnold said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:02 am

    Things like -gate are certainly morphological elements, acting like compound formatives in some ways, like affixes in others; Michael Quinion's Ologies and Isms labels them "combining forms", also labeled as prefixes or suffixes depending on their position within the word; the entry for -gate is here.

    I've recently called them libfixes, because they're "liberated" parts of words.

  14. Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    It is probably not surprising that different locales have different meanings for the same -gate. For example, in Finland, "Irakgate" refers to certain events (involving Finnish foreign policy and the Iraq war) during the 2003 parliamentary election campaign which led to the resignation of the new prime minister some months later. I believe, however, that the label was first applied to it several years later.

  15. Jonathan Badger said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    The book about North Korea in question, Demick's "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea", actually is quite good — I read it last week. The author has interviewed a number of former North Koreans who have made it to the South (often by quite dangerous methods) and gives a much better picture of current North Korea than most books on the country, which often were written, or at least researched, in the early 1990s or earlier when the North Korean system was still working at some level. It's not really a Stalinist theme park anymore — it basically is on the way to becoming a failed state where smuggling goods from China is the only way to make a living.

    But yes, I had to wince when the obvious snowclone lead off one chapter. But the author isn't really using it to claim that North Koreans really have a lot of words for prison, only that there are a lot of different kinds of prison there, with different percentages of actually surviving one's sentence.

    [IYes, it's precisely the utter disregard of lexicography — the willingness to take language to be a topic no one need be serious about — that irks me. We have no list of current (North) Korean terms for prison. English might well have a dramatically larger number of such words (prison, penitentiary, jail, clink, nick, pokey, slammer, bird, porridge, time, big house, lockup, inside…). It might or might not be interesting to have such lists to compare. But my beef is not about that; it's about the fact that nobody cares whether we have a true claim or not. In this domain — the perennially fascinating domain of Things People Have Words For — nobody checks anything, they just make stuff up or pass on unsubstantiated drivel they think they read somewhere. —GKP]

  16. Jeffrey said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    The helicopter metanalysis mistake reminds me of the same mistake made with metrosexual. What is that supposed to mean? Sex and the city?

  17. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    a female politician with the unbelievably evocative name Mrs. Robinson who had an affair with a young man a full four decades younger than her (koo-kook-a-joo!)

    Is "koo-kook-a-joo" in Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson"? I think this might instead represent the syllables in John Lennon's "I Am the Walrus" rendered (in the lyrics on the album cover) as "Goo goo ga joob."

    [You think I don't know my Simonian koo-kook-a-joo (or koo-kook-a-choo, is it?) from my freakin' Lennonian goo-goo-ga-joob? I was a professional pop musician for five years, for chrissakes. Ican tell the difference "The Graduate" from the Beatles' "Magical Mystery Tour". —GKP]

  18. J said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 11:18 am


    Actually, they do have koo-koo-ka-choo in their song: "koo-koo-ka-choo Mrs. Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you could know…" I don't know if it's a reference to the Beatles or coincidental.

  19. Nicholas Waller said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    @rootlesscosmo – see this dug up from a lyrics site:

    Coo, coo, ca-choo, Mrs Robinson
    Jesus loves you more than you will know (Wo, wo, wo)

    I wonder if that's meant to be Woe, Woe, Woe. (There's also hey, hey, hey in the song).

  20. Erin said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    I am sure that Benjamin Zimmer has written about the morphological behavior of -gate but I haven't been able to track down a link. I briefly mentioned it in this post, but I accept your point that re-analyzing a morpheme to stand for something else is not the same as generating a variant of a fill-in-the-blank sentence.

  21. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    Re coo coo ca choo and goo goo ga joob, see my Word Routes column from last September (and the Language Log followup).

  22. Boris said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    I think Koo-Koo-Ka-Choo is the standard rendition for Paul Simon's song and Goo goo g'joob for the Beatles. Surprisingly, all signs point to the two being unrelated.

    [Could we get back on message here, people? I think we were supposed to be discussing… umm… actually I forgot. It doesn't make any difference; I expect the next person will pick up on words for "prison" or something. You people. You're just undisciplined, you know that? —GKP]

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    BrE does have various words synonymous with "prison" that AmE lacks, such as "the nick" (and do y'all still spell jail as gaol?). But perhaps the same is true in reverse. I would actually think that many languages will have lots of synonyms for prison because the driving factors of a) the habitually criminal elements of society being likely to have their own lexically-distinct cant/jargon/slang; and b) the desire of other elements of society to sometimes refer to imprisonment in euphemistic terms, both seem likely to be widespread and not particularly unique to Anglophone societies.

    [I knew it. —GKP]

  24. Dan T. said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 5:11 pm

    The original Watergate becomes an oddity in scandal nomenclature because the scandal doesn't actually pertain to water.

  25. Stephen Jones said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    It was just a non-serious allusion to the reference to Zwicky above.

    Commentators on the blog Zwicky links to seem to give around thirty words for 'slammer'.

    However if Sapir-Whorf holds true then we would expect English to have the record since the US has a higher incarceration rate (701 per 100,000) than any other country in the World

    Unfortunately North Korea does not release figures.

  26. Stephen Jones said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

    I've recently called them libfixes, because they're "liberated" parts of words.

    And they also bound morphemes because unlike free morphemes they can't form a word on their own. Who said linguistic terminology had to be logical or consistent. :)

  27. Boris said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    Might it be that the gate in Xgate has some interference from gate in "investigate"? It has certainly interfered with my understanding of Xgate if I'm wrong. I was always under the impression that gates are investigations rather than scandals (though the ones reported in the media are sensationalist investigations which have high correlation with scandals). In my mind it is no longer a gate once the facts have been discovered or a verdict was announced. So, say, when it became clear what happened between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski the Monicagate was over, but not necessarily the scandal. Am I completely off base here?

  28. Stephen Jones said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    It's a kind of general store run by people who I suspect might be Pubjabi-speaking Pakistanis,

    A lot are run by Ugandan and Kenyan Asians, who are often of Gujarati descent.

  29. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

    My apologies. I knew "Mrs. Robinson" only from the movie version which (according to Ben Zimmer's post) didn't include those syllables.

  30. Nathan Myers said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 7:55 pm

    Speaking of wandering indiscipline, I was excoriated last week by my wife and mother-in-law (two people, mind!) for defending the use of the dative case in English. They insisted it was a low-class marker that, if our offspring failed to learn to avoid it, would handicap them socially. An example they found practically trailerish, if not Appalachian, was "I bought Nico some pants", which they insisted should be "I bought some pants for Nico". For the record, appeals to Chaucer, Shakespeare and King James availed me not. I knew better than to cite their own speech.

    [(amz) Your relatives are confusing two different sorts of datives: the perfectly ordinary, and entirely standard, dative argument in ditransitives ("I gave them a dollar", "I bought Nico some pants"); and what Larry Horn calls non-argument datives (as in "I need me some dinner"), which are non-standard and especially associated with South and South Midlands varieties of AmE.]

  31. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

    The "Indian shop" sounds roughly equivalent to what we call in New York City a "bodega," whose Spanish-derived name of course signifies that it is commonly if not stereotypically run by immigrants from (South) Korea. Or something like that. (South Asian immigrants in NYC do commonly run "newsstands," whose typical inventory overlaps somewhat with that of a bodega, while nonetheless remaining a distinct genre.)

  32. Katherine said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    O_o I've never heard dairies, corner shops, small grocery shops etc referred to by the prevailing nationality of those that run them. Oh wait. Chinese takeaways (that invariably sell fish and chips and precious little else, though they are starting to branch out).

  33. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

    @Erin: You might be thinking of my post "The cran-morphing of dango," or perhaps "Unfolding Infogami" — both touch on -gate in passing. It also popped up in my OUPblog post, "A Poptastic Geekfest for Infoholics."

  34. Amy Stoller said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

    NYC native here: I can remember when bodegas were, in fact run, by Latinos; although in those days they were not called Latinos, they were called Puerto Ricans, or Spanish, regardless of their actual national background. Latino came after Hispanic, if memory serves. Someone of Hispanophone background might be likelier to remember accurately about nomenclature – but not about bodegas unless they grew up here.

    @Boris: I can assure you that the -gate suffix derives solely from Watergate. It was never used before the Watergate scandal broke; it has been used to mean "scandal" (not "investigation") ever since, much as -holic/-aholic/-oholic is used to mean "addict."

    There was, of course, an investigation into the Watergate burglaries, and then into the coverup of the burglaries, by a couple of investigative journalists, back when journalists really were journalists; later there were Congressional hearings. But the story that broke was the Watergate scandal; the hearings were held on the Watergate scandal.

  35. phspaelti said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 4:28 am

    One thing that makes -gate rather different from other suffixes (and which might help explain why someone might mistake it for a snowclone) is that it doesn't create common words (nouns etc.) but rather it forms proper nouns. So "Nanny-gate" is the name for some particular scandal (I forget which one) involving a nanny (or payments to a nanny?) and doesn't refer to just any scandal involving nannies. To me this looks more like those commercial suffixes out there: Mc- (for McDonalds products), or i- (as in iPhone) etc.
    Quite generally it doesn't look like many of these expressions are going to have much of a shelf life.

  36. Adam said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 5:40 am

    If the Watergate Hotel had been spelt "Water Gate", then would "Iris Gate", "Nanny Gate", etc., count as snowclones?

  37. Stephen Jones said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 6:34 am

    To me this looks more like those commercial suffixes out there: Mc- (for McDonalds products)

    No, because a McMansion can be any type of large tasteless house and there are millions of Mcjobs in lots of different companies.

    You are correct about -gate though.

  38. Dan T. said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    There have perhaps been several "Nannygates" by now, with that label being applied on more than one occasion to scandals involving nannies. If this happens with some of the "-gate" terms, as scandals repeat themselves, it's possible some of them could eventually become generic words for scandal types.

  39. Jorge said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    Another thing about -gate is that it has been happily borrowed by lots of other language's journalese. We've had our share of 'gates here in Argentina, like the "bañogate" (i.e. "bathroomgate") involving money of unclear origin found in a Minister's bathroom cupboard.

  40. dwmacg said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    @Nathan Myers,

    You should buy your wife and mother-in-law this book for Valentine's Day–it would truly be an act of love.

    [Don't listen to him, Nathan. But how about Jan Freeman's edition of Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right for your astoundingly pedantic and misguided female affinal relatives? —GKP]

  41. Army1987 said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    Even without thinking about its etymology, I find the word snowclone quite evocative as it reminds me of avalanches.

  42. Faldone said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    A Walk in the WoRds classifies -gate as a cranberry morpheme.

    Tigergate has some 300,000 Google hits. Six of the first ten are about Tiger Woods.

  43. Boris said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    I did not mean to suggest that Xgate was used before Watergate or that it was not derived from Watergate. I only meant that (I thought, apparently wrongly) the way Xgate is used is influenced by its similarity with "investigate".

  44. Stephen Jones said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    A Walk in the WoRds classifies -gate as a cranberry morpheme.

    She's wrong though.

  45. Philip Spaelti said,

    February 3, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

    To me this looks more like those commercial suffixes out there: Mc- (for McDonalds products)

    No, because a McMansion can be any type of large tasteless house and there are millions of Mcjobs in lots of different companies.

    Which is why I put the qualifier about McDonalds products in there. Yes, the "Mc-" prefix has since graduated to (also) become a real prefix. And in the bargain it has acquired a totally new meaning (something like "generic?").

  46. Alex Steer said,

    February 4, 2010 @ 2:15 am

    A few more thoughts and (rough) numbers on -gate at

  47. Nathan Myers said,

    February 4, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

    dwmacg: Crazy Adele writing linguistics? Oops, wikipedia distinguishes Crazy Adele from Adele Eva Goldberg, the linguist, whom I hereby dub "Adele the Younger", since she's a year younger than I am. I shall assume that Geoff means no disrespect for either Adele. Mark my words, we shall all be saying "English Midlands", when we mean that, before the century is out. My mother-in-law rhymes Monday with Grundy, and does not pronounce the "t" in "often", so she's hardly irredeemable.

    I found Larry Horn's paper no end of fascinating, despite my poor linguistic vocabulary. Horn's distinction between non-argument and other datives seems more slippery than he suggests; and some assertions, such as that second-person pronouns don't work in the construction, struck me as odd.

  48. Size said,

    February 6, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    -gate may be distinct from a snowclone, but to me, using it for shorthand is just as lazy as using a snowclone, since it barely qualifies as creating a new word.

    One of my favorite scandals of the last 20 years here in the US was the White Water scandal, simply because I was (and am) sick of this and that -gate.

  49. Dan T. said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    I think there were a few attempts to label it "Whitewatergate".

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