Alex Steer

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Climate and other gates

1222 words | ~6 min

There can be something a bit precocious and annoying about new words, can't there? There's also no shortage of them: it seems to be a sport among journalists and tech people, in particular, to come up with new coinages. Few of them stick.

In my post on heatist, though, I made the point that new words, even if they don't last, can tell us a lot about the attitudes of the people who coined them. One way of finding those attitudes is to look for meaningful similarities to existing words. Linguists call these groupings of similar words classes. Classes may group words by their forms (often called lexical or morphological classes): words ending in -ing, for example, or words than pluralize in -en (e.g. ox, child). They may also group words by their functions: the parts of speech are classes. They may even group words by their meanings: thesauruses are lists of quite tightly-defined semantic classes.

Sometimes classes can be both formal and meaningful. 'Heatist' belongs to just such a 'lexical semantic class' - a class of words ending in -ist that denote prejudice or favouritism. Whenever someone coins a new word in this class, we know he or she is trying to encode some value judgements into the new word. What a heatist is doing is bad, like the actions or attitudes or a racist or a sexist or an ageist. (On a side note, we need to be careful not to confuse lexical-semantic classes with broader, purely lexical ones. A racist and a sexist belong to the class I've mentioned; a hypnotist and a dentist do not.)

The scandal over leaked emails from the UEA Climatic Research Unit (see my previous post and everywhere else) throws up yet another chance to think about the claims made by a certain lexical-semantic class: in this case, the class of words ending in -gate denoting scandal. This class takes its lead from Watergate, the name of the Washington D.C. office complex that extended its use to the whole political scandal that erupted in the USA in 1972.

How many -gate words are there? Helpfully, Wikipedia has a list of scandals with the -gate suffix. Of course, Wikipedia is freely editable, and there's no guarantee of completeness, but it's probably the best resource available without spending a lot of time on a lot of corpora, which just isn't worth doing.

The Wikipedia -gate List (hereafter WGL) has 129 items, which suggests that the -gate class is pretty productive. None of them seem bogus (I've checked), and even though some of them refer to the same scandals (e.g. Irangate and Contragate) they're still separate lexical items. I went through the list and classified each scandal by the decade in which it emerged. (Note, this is not quite the same as saying these words were coined then, though it's a fairly safe approximation.)

Here's the distribution of the WGL by decade:

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This tells us either that, despite its 1970s origins, -gate has been most productive in the last ten years, or that the list is incomplete and heavily biased in favour of recent examples. Possibly both.

Let's break down the 2000s by year:

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Again, it's heavily stacked towards the present. This may tell us more about the inherent biases of an encyclopedia that relies on what people know and can remember than it does about -gate, but that's interesting too.

So we've seen roughly when these -gate words were coined, but how successful have they been? Which ones never made it past the closed loop of journalist-speak, which now includes blogger-speak? To be fair to both journalists and bloggers, there's a reason to be sceptical: these are not just words, they are names of events, so we should expect them to have shelf-lives corresponding to the impact of those events. Still, it's good to wonder which ones were being read and repeated by people, rather than just committed to paper (or to the screen) never to be used again.

A half-decent test for this is to run each suffix through Google Trends, which tracks the volume of searches for words and phrases across time (for the last five years, anyway). Google Trends hits indicate that people are searching for a term, which at least suggests some limited uptake. Because Google Trends results are relative, I've used Watergate (which has unarguably stood the test of time) as the benchmark.

Here's what you get for Watergate:

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The big spike in May 2005 was caused by Vanity Fair's revelation of the identity of Deep Throat, the informant who leaked details of the Watergate Scandal.

I ran the names of all of the scandals coined in or after 2004 through Google Trends. Most of the -gate words on the list do not even show up on the graph when compared to Watergate. Those that do are tiny by comparison. They are:

  • Bloodgate (2009)
  • Crashgate (2008)
  • Naftagate (2008)
  • Petrogate (2008)
  • Utegate (2009)
  • Nipplegate (2004)
  • Troopergate (2008)
  • Spygate (2007)
  • Climategate (2009)

Even among these, most had only one tiny spike on the Google Trends graph, enough to conclude that they had no significant shelf-life at all, even if they were searched for a short, intense period.

The ones with a more prolonged time on the graph, zoomed in on, were:

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Even these have pretty short lives as words that are interesting enough to make people search for them in any significant numbers. The relative search volume for each, compared to Watergate, is tiny.

So what Climategate tells us is that although the lexical-semantic class -gate is very productive, most of the words within it have no staying power and little currency. This should not stop us from recognising the power of words in that class. However short a time they have, by bringing the taint of scandal, they can destroy reputations and bring down careers.

On a less serious note, here's a quote on the subject care of That Mitchell and Webb Look:

WEBB: Oh, the scandal in America. Yeah, that is interesting. That must be the biggest scandal since Watergategate. MITCHELL: Watergategate? Isn't it just Watergate? WEBB: No. That would mean it was just about water. 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. MITCHELL: Well said.

# Alex Steer (15/12/2009)