12:50 AM EST Feb 22



By Blair Shewchuk
CBC News Online

Shawinigan may be a place in Canada, but does Shawinigate have its place too?

With the recent launch of a Web site by that name, the odds of the word catching on may have risen slightly.

It's impossible to tell if the term will wind up becoming widely used to describe allegations against Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. In matters of language, as in politics, a majority will eventually decide.

Before we vote on whether to keep the gate or show it the door, there are some points worth considering.

It's easy to burgle the American lexicon and pocket Watergate for our own purposes. But it takes more than an Internet campaign by opposition parties in Ottawa to influence the way we speak.

CBC News Online columnist Martin O'Malley recently pointed out that many journalists appear to be avoiding Shawinigate right now — restraint he called uplifting given the overuse and misuse of certain words.

The more common, and neutral, term Grand-Mère affair seems to have greater appeal, partly because of its lilt, and partly because it's not a watered down Watergate cliché.


Welding chunks of words into something new remains a devilishly popular pastime in English, even if the results are sometimes strange and laughably illogical.

Many mergers have come from venerable practitioners. Over the centuries poets have crafted combinations with the kind of care that only those who truly love language exhibit.

In the 1660s, for example, John Milton wanted to describe a place full of fallen angels. He settled on pandemonium — made up of the Greek words pan (all) and demon (devil).

The term has come to mean uproar or confusion, since that's what you get in a hall full of mischief-makers. But the original marriage of syllables remains logical.


On the other hand, English is full of all sorts of new words that don't make much sense when dissected.

Telethon and dancethon, for instance, refer to activities stretched out over many hours. So one might assume that thon has its roots in the passage of time. The connection, however, is indirect at best.

Thon comes to us from marathon. Although the word now means a long-distance race it originally referred to the name of a Greek city where a battle was fought in 490 BC. A runner travelled more than 30 kilometres to Athens to deliver word of the victory.

When the modern-day Olympics began in Athens in 1896, the historic run was re-enacted and it wasn't long before thon began appearing at the end of other words.

Lexicographers dismissed these formations as barbarous at first, but the terms are now generally accepted without comment.


Some of us appear to suffer from a compulsive need to repeat the endings of other words. It may not be long before we start calling ourselves suffixaholics.

The 1998 Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines aholic and oholic as "combining" terms that refer to addiction. They both come to us from the word alcohol.

But purists have pointed out that alcoholics are addicted to alcohol not alc, so the suffix oholic doesn't really stand on its own.

In his 1999 book A Bawdy Language, Montreal journalist Howard Richler quipped that Catholics are not defined as people who have a fixation with felines.

Regardless we now find ourselves talking about workaholics and chocoholics. No matter how hard anyone labours the labels are with us – at least until something sweeter comes along.


In 1978, four years after U.S. President Richard Nixon had left office in disgrace, Oxford still defined "Watergate" as a sluice or floodgate — a term that had been used for more than two centuries.

But dictionaries eventually caught up to the media and masses. By the end of the next decade, Oxford's first definition of the noun became "a political or commercial scandal on a large scale," especially one involving bugging devices or the suppression of evidence.

(The term came from the name of the building in Washington that housed the U.S. Democratic Party's national headquarters. A break-in there during the summer of 1972 eventually forced Nixon to resign.)

Lexicographers also noticed that gate itself had become an increasingly common suffix — with terms like Irangate, Nannygate and Tunagate — and they broadened its meaning to include attempted cover-ups and other fiascoes.

Of course these scholars were merely recording changes that were taking place, dutifully describing the language being used in newspapers, on airwaves, and elsewhere.


In recent years there has been a backlash against the suffix.

Instead of rushing to create new words with it, journalists have been advised to take a more measured pace — especially when there are merely vague allegations of corruption or unethical behaviour.

Sticking gate on the end of a term, especially one that already has the letter g in it like Shawinigan, is a convenient way to sum up something complicated. But it can also produce language loaded with assumptions.

What impressions do people get when a term like Shawinigate is reported? Do they assume it merely means allegations of wrong-doing? Or does the word, itself, suggest unethical behaviour and a cover-up.

The Canadian Oxford acknowledges that the suffix gate is sometimes used now to describe "actual or alleged scandal." But it's important to remember that not everyone hears or reads the word this way.

Some news organizations have already urged reporters to be extremely judicious. The BBC News and Current Affairs Stylebook and Editorial Guide, for instance, states:

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.


Part of the strength of English is evolution, which includes flexibility and variation. We don't speak the same way our grandparents did (a fact that puts a new spin on the language of "the Grand-Mère affair.")

Before cobbling together something like Shawinigate to describe allegations of impropriety, however, it's important to pause and ask if the neologism applies.

The prime minister's critics naturally love the word because of the allusion to Nixon. But should we blindly take direction from the Official Opposition, which recently compared Chrétien to Slobodan Milosevic and then apologized for careless use of language?

Billingsgate is a very old word that means "coarse or abusive language." (It was spawned centuries ago in the Billingsgate fish market in London where porters screamed and swore a lot.)

The word Shawinigate could be viewed by some as a different kind of abuse of language, one that should be avoided unless there's proof we've got a Watergate on our hands.

(April 10, 2001)

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