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Newspapergate

Of all the jobs I’ve ever tackled, the one which is at the same time the most interesting and the most frustrating is that of reading newspapers for the Oxford English Dictionary. Newspapers are a melting pot of language in action; if they are, as someone said whose name I can’t for the moment remember, “the first draft of history”, they are also certainly the first draft of the next edition of the OED. For anyone interested in the evolution of the language, they are a treasure trove. So why is reading them often so frustrating? Because the golden crucible of creative neologisms so often has a surface scum of knee-jerk, cliché-ridden, automatic invention.

The problem for me begins with the infamous break-in at the Democratic Party’s headquarters in the Watergate building in 1972. Soon afterwards journalists began to expropriate the last syllable of the name of the building and attach it to other words. It became a signal to the reader: “here’s another bit of bugging and burgling with political overtones”. It was truly an extraordinary perversion of an ancient word. The trouble was, journalists liked –gate so much that they kept using it, and they’re still using it, though the sense has weakened to “something embarrassing that has happened to somebody in the public eye”. My database is bulging with examples. The present US administration alone has generated travelgate, nannygate, sexgate, troopergate, fornigate, whitewatergate (at least that one has a punning reference to the original), and filegate. If some of these raise no memories, it is because it is in the nature of the construct to be ephemeral.

Those among us who like to see lively neologisms cross the Atlantic (and the US is much more linguistically radical than Britain these days) also regret the importation of less sublime usages; unfortunately, this one has hold of the collective word-coining brain areas of British journalists just as much as their transatlantic counterparts. So we have had Camillagate (the case of the sneaked recordings of telephone conversations between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles), bastardgate (when the Prime Minister was overheard telling John Snow of ITN after an interview that he had a number of awkward bastards in the Cabinet), and nuttergate (when the former Secretary of State for Education called the much-respected Birmingham Director of Education a nutter in a speech).

There are voices crying for restraint. The BBC News and Current Affairs style guide says firmly:

The Watergate scandal involved politicians bugging other politicians. It does not follow that every scandal involving either bugging or politicians has to be given the suffix “–gate”. It is clichéd and, for an ever-increasing number of listeners, it is baffling too. We should not coin new Gates, and when others coin them we should be slow to follow.

but I doubt its advice will be taken up outside the BBC.

Suffixes hold a special place for journalists. In the sweaty grip of deadlines, when careful thought is impossible, it is comforting to be able to take a word, slap a suffix on it and make something that looks even a little original. I have mentioned –ee elsewhere; another is –dom (bikerdom, bestsellerdom, Big Brotherdom, blokedom, cloth capdom, computerdom, coupledom, dogdom, er, etc). Yet another is –like (acnelike, elevatorlike, lucklike, unleaflike).

Some years ago in Britain, there was a particularly unpleasant series of murders of young women by someone the papers tagged the Yorkshire Ripper (and there’s a fine example of thought-free derivative naming for you). The phrase serial killer was then relatively new in Britain but journalists discovered that it not only fitted this case in particular, but that serial was an excellent phrase-starter, neatly combining immediate recognition with some sort of relevant sense (though, as exasperated logicians pointed out about serial rapist, such activities are not commonly carried out in parallel). So we had serial bomber, serial adulterer, serial monogamy (in which a person has only one lover at a time, perhaps the best of the bunch), serial cannibalism, serial golfer, serial truant and even serial mistake. Luckily for my peace of mind, this fashion seems to have died.

Unfortunately, it was soon replaced by other catchphrases. One was feeding frenzy, which denotes any sort of over-competitive behaviour on the part of politicians, journalists or businesses. This only started to appear in British newspapers in about 1994 but clearly originated in the United States. The original feeding frenzy, of course, is the vicious attack on their prey by groups of sharks, leading to thrashing bodies, blood-flecked foam and dismembered corpses. It was a powerful image originally, but is now so overworked that it has become almost meaningless. A current buzzphrase which, like “serial”, has given rise to many variants is road rage, used to describe berserk attacks by drivers on other drivers, usually for minor infractions or supposed slights. I have seen reports that it was invented by the Los Angeles Times about 12 years ago, but cannot confirm this. In Britain, it has given rise to a basketful of variants, including trolley rage (in supermarkets), golf rage (attacks on other players for poor etiquette), kennel rage (frustrated animals in kennels turning on others), noise rage (violent behaviour triggered by excessive noise), and science rage (aggression by researchers towards referees who recommend rejection of a paper).

But the cliché which is currently making me quiver every time I see it is feel-good factor. This was coined by the Chancellor of the Exchequer just before the last general election, to indicate a prosperous state of affairs which made people feel good and so, by implication, want to vote Conservative. Unfortunately for him, it has turned out to be a bit of a chimera and journalists have been searching for “the elusive feel-good factor” for the last four years (it’s always elusive, by the way, never missing, or invisible, or indiscernible). At one point when the outlook was particularly un-feel-good-like, one bright spark coined feel-bad factor and this is now almost as popular as the original. This cliché has strength and endurance, I’m sorry to say. Hardly a day goes by in the Guardian newspaper without a sighting of it, its antonym, or some compound such as feelgoodery. As we are less than a year away from a general election, and the phrase has such strong political links, it is highly probable that it will stay in vogue at least twelve months more.

I’m fed up with all of these formations, but know only too well that even if they die out or are ridiculed into obscurity, others will rise, hydra-like, to take their places. Grit your teeth, Michael, keep reading. Oh, look, trainspotterdom, aargh ...

Page created 11 Jul. 1996
Last updated 20 Jul. 1996

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Last modified: 20 July 1996.