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Dr Klaus Bung
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© 2012 Klaus Bung
Sexism and Watergate - Fashionable Suffixes
There are a fair number of new words in circulation which end in -ism and suggest that righteous people do not like what they denote, e.g. "sexism", "raceism", "ageism", "elitism", etc. The history of the suffix -ism is well documented and the recent examples appear to be fairly kosher. This essay considers the history of "gate", as in Watergate or Camilla-Gate, a fashionable and overused "suffix", which has moved so far away from its original meaning that it must be utterly puzzling to the foreign learner of English.
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2012-02-11 Sexism and Watergate - Fashionable Suffixes
The origins of -ism
Somebody asked: The morpheme (element) -ism in words like "sexism", "raceism", and "ageism" suggests that it means "discrimination on the grounds of x". Is this generally true?
Wikipedia has an article on -ism. It is so thorough and systematic that I cannot do better than that.
It gives a good classification of the many kinds of formations which are possible, going back to their origins, giving the dates when various -ism words were first recorded in print, right down to the present "free-for-all" where you can combinine almost any word with -ism, and the result is far removed from the original meaning and function of -ism.
This kind of development is similar to what happened to the suffix -gate. It started with "watergate", a structure to control water (e.g. canals to the sea or a river), which exists or existed in many towns across the world (like the Thames Barrier in London). A building in Washington near the original watergate was named "Watergate". In that building were the offices of a political party. These offices were then simply referred to as Watergate, similar to the residence and offices of the British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street, also simply known as "Number 10".
So you read in the press "10 Downing Street has announced that the following has happened", meaning that the government has announced something. Or in the States: "The White House has announced that ..."
One day President Nixon authorised a burglary of the offices of his opponents in the Watergate building to obtain information. He denied that this had happened, used a lot of swear words (expletive deleted), but eventually was forced to resign over this affair.
The whole affair was called "The Watergate Affair" because at its core was the burglary in the Watergate Building. The burglary had been "fucked up", as Nixon would perhaps put it, i.e. had been messed up, i.e. had been a failure. Or, to put it as a noun: The burglary had been a fuck-up. (Warning: Don't use these words when you are introduced to the Pope, have tea with the Queen, meet Mrs Obama or when the Maulvi or the Bishop comes for dinner. They won't like it.)
People were so impressed by this scandal, not least by Nixon's swearing, that they started using the word "gate" as if it were a suffix for any scandal. So if there were a scandal brewing in London, they might call it London-gate, if it concerned Camilla Parker-Bowles, now wife of the Prince of Wales, they would call it Camilla-gate, if there were a scandal in Facebook, they would call it Facebook-gate. If British Prime Minister David Cameron were involved in a scandal, they would call it Cameron-gate. The suffix -gate would be particularly apposite (= correct, appropriate), if there were a cover-up or white-wash of the scandal attempted.
Wikipedia has a list of such scandals with the -gate suffix. The list is enormous. I have been unable to count all the instances.
I am not in favour of these wild combinations because they deviate so far from the original meanings and (unlike in the case of -ism) the deviations have developed so quickly, like a cancer or like an attack of public hysteria. They are usually started by the press, which needs snappy headlines, and not by individuals.
However, in the case of -ism, ism-words can easily be invented and brought into currency by individuals, especially individuals who have an axe to grind. It is true that these NEW COINAGES (new word creations) often do mean "unfavourable discrimination on the grounds of xyz", as Mohammed suggests.
But that is NOT true when you look at the origins of -ism, or at the whole range of words ending in -ism.