Like Hookergate, Contragate and even Fajitagate before it, Climategate is a product of a nearly 40-year old scandal-naming convention that is in no danger of becoming obsolete.
Climategate. It was only a matter of hours after an unknown hacker distributed emails stolen from a server used by the Climatic Research Unit at the the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, that the scandal's predictable moniker began popping into the heads of writers, editors and media strategists, and onto the pages of the blogs, newspapers and talking points they produce.
The formulaic naming convention of adding a -gate to the end of an important person, place or thing in the scandal has became so commonplace it was named and defined in 1978 by journalist and political writer William Safire in his Safire's Political Dictionary. Safire called the practice "-gate construction" who admitted that he was just as culpable as the next reporter for perpetuating the practice by referring to a 1976 scandal as Koreagate.
But we haven't always had the handy naming convention, and we owe it all to the events that took place on June 17, 1972 (which is coincidentally my birthday). Watergate is a name that was simply built for scandal. The very construction of the word allows it to be easily customized to fit nearly any scenario. And it also has the unique ability to transcend language differences.
Watergate. Everyone knows it as the name of the scandal that rocked the Nixon administration in 1972. Named after the Watergate Hotel and Complex in Washington, D.C. where five men with ties the Committee to Re-Elect the President (Nixon) were arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, Watergate quickly became synonymous with scandal — both political and otherwise.
After Watergate, a scandal in France dealing with the fraudulent mis-labeling of Bordeaux wines was quickly dubbed the Winegate affair by French papers. After the initial copy-cat, the floodgates officially opened and the long affair with slapping a -gate onto the name of an important player or some word(s) related to a given scandal had begun.
Amazingly, there are well over two hundred scandals with the -gate suffix. And while Wikipedia lists 221 or so "widely recognized scandals", there are more than a few you have probably forgotten about (or, more likely, never heard of).
Other than being President Jimmy Carter's brother, you may have only known his brother Bill Carter for his short-lived Billy Beer, but the affable brother to the President was also at the center of the aptly-named Billygate, when he was hired by the Libyan government as a foreign agent.
Of course there were the 3 Troopergate scandals, the most recent of which involved Alaska Governor and former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. And some of you may remember Travelgate, the 1993 firings of White House Travel Office employees at the start of the Clinton administration.
But it didn't take long for the -gate suffix to spill out of politics and into popular culture -- and into sports in particular.
There was the infamous Nipplegate affair when singer Justin Timberlake revealed more of Janet Jackson than anyone expected (except the two performers themselves) in what they later referred to as a "wardrobe malfunction" during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII. And who can forget Monkeygate - the controversy that resulted when Harbhajan Singh, the Indian off-spin bowler, allegedly called an Australian batsman a "monkey" during the controversial Sydney Test match in January 2008.
Finally, do you remember Chicanegate, when McLaren's Lewis Hamilton cut of the Bus Stop-chicane during a fight for race position with Ferrari's Kimi Räikkönen to win the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix? Of course you don't. In fact, perusing the list of 200+ "scandals" in the Wikipedia entry about the -gate suffix you might recognize only a handful. And it appears as though Americans are hardly the ones to blame for the practice. The Brits (and their Commonwealth brothers and sisters) absolutely love it.
So if you're tired of hearing about a different scandalgate every other week, I have some bad news for you. The practice doesn't appear to be waning. In the most recent edition of Safire's Political Dictionary, published shortly before the author's death in September of 2009, William Safire predicts, "The formulation with the -gate suffix is too useful to fade quickly."
And if you're tired of hearing about Climategate, I have even more bad news for you: the word Climategate outranked "global warming" in Google searches on Friday.
Follow Tim Hurst on twitter @ecopolitologist