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September 06, 2019  |  Friday words #187  |  5119 hit(s)

I think that anyone who watches politics and words can guess what this week's new-to-me word is going to be. But just in case, here's the background.

On September 1, President Trump tweeted that Hurricane Dorian would hit several states, including Alabama. Some people, including the National Weather Service, responded by noting that Alabama was in fact not in danger. Trump defended his assertion, and then—here's where our story really begins—on September 4 he provided an update in which he showed a poster on which the hurricane cone map had apparently been extended with what looked like a marker to cover parts of Alabama:

I don't have any commentary on the map stuff. What interested me was that the situation instantly got a name and a hashtag on Twitter: #Sharpiegate; slightly less interestingly, it was also dubbed #Mapgate. Both names are testaments not only to people's playfulness with language, but are more examples of the enduring power of the -gate suffix. (In case it's not clear, Sharpie is a brand name for a type of marker.)

Let's talk about that for a moment. The -gate suffix came about in the 1970s. It was originally part of a name: the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, DC. In that name, the -gate part was what's sometimes called a cranberry morpheme—a word part (morpheme) that distinguishes the word, but that doesn't otherwise mean anything.

Then came the scandals of the Nixon presidency. These began with a bungled burglary at the DNC headquarters, which happened to be in the Watergate office complex. Soon the name of the hotel became a metonym for the entirety of the high crimes and misdemeanors, becoming Watergate-the-scandal, which ultimately brought down the administration.[1]

From that point, the -gate suffix went from being a cranberry morpheme that had no inherent meaning to what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls a libfix (for "liberated affix," more or less). This is a morpheme that's broken off from its source, has developed its own meaning, and can be combined in new ways. (There are many libfixes. Others you undoubtedly know are constituent parts of cheeseburger, frankenfood, and mansplain.)

When the libfix -gate broke off from Watergate, it carried along the sense of "scandal" and boy, has it ever been useful. There's a Wikipedia page of -gate scandals, including Deflategate (NFL), Dieselgate (VW), Emailgate (HRC), Gamergate, and Troopergate (3 different scandals). Satisfyingly, Sharpiegate has already been added.

Update (22 Sep 2019): Fans of the HBO show Succession might have caught a -gate reference during an early conversation in Season 2, Episode 7 ("Return") , which aired tonight:

Fun. Ok, just a quick delightful origin today. Tragedies are sad, of course. Etymologically speaking, though, it's not clear why they should be. The Greek roots of tragedy are tragus and oid, which respectively mean "he-goat" and "song, ode."

There are theories about this, but no certainty. One theory is that at contests, a winning playwright won a goat. Or that thespians wore costumes made of goatskins. The word might have been modeled on rhapsody ("stitched-song").

Update: On Twitter, Florent Moncomble notes that "there is also a hypothesis that the genre may have its origins in the song accompanying the sacrifice of male goats during the festival of Dionysus."

It's also possible that tragus doesn't refer to goats at all. We just don't know, but since we don't, I'm totally down with tragedies being goat-songs.

[1] For an excellent history of the whole Watergate affair, check out season 1 of the Slow Burn podcast.

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Nancy   06 Sep 19 - 6:57 PM

Anatomically, the tragus is the little pointy-sticky-outy part of the outer ear, or (alternatively) the tuft of hair that sometimes grows there, which is said to resemble a goat's beard. The tragus is a popular location for piercing.

mike   06 Sep 19 - 8:03 PM

Interesting. It amuses me that people thought—not incorrectly, I suppose—that ear hair resembled a goat beard.