Have you heard of brussels sprout-gate? I certainly hadn’t, until I read the other day in a celebrity mag that Denise Drysdale has recovered from the trauma of it. You may not know, or you may have forgotten the details, but you could safely assume that it’s some kind of vegetable-related brouhaha because everyone knows that tacking gate onto something denotes a scandal about that thing.
Whether anyone remembers why is a different matter. So before I go on to remind you of the salient facts of brussels sprout-gate, let’s open the – ahem – gate to memory lane and take a stroll past landmarks in the life and times of this silly but enduring and curiously endearing linguistic phenomenon.
Baby boomers will remember that it all started nearly 50 years ago (can you believe that?!) with Watergate, the episode of political skullduggery in which agents acting for Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into the headquarters of the Democratic Party in a Washington office block known as the Watergate building. The name of the building became shorthand for the subsequent scandal which brought down his presidency.
It’s a fun fact that had Watergate been constructed in the same way as its numerous descendants, it would have been a scandal about water! Which is probably what everyone under thirty thinks it was anyway. (There’s an interesting social experiment: Ask the nearest youngster what they about Watergate.)
But English word-formation has never been about logic. Witness the fact that an escapee is still he or she who escapes from a prison, despite the interminable but futile campaign on the part of pedants to convince us that the prison should be the escapee and the fugitive the escaper.
So it was purely a matter of human whimsy that gate became detached from water and started freelancing as the go-to suffix whenever we needed a nickname for what we would probably once have called an affair, as in the Dreyfus Affair, for instance – a huge political scandal in early twentieth century France. If it happened today it would probably have been dubbed Dreyfusgate, at least in the Anglosphere!
It took a while for Watergate to produce viable offspring. I can’t remember any significant gates from the late 70s or early 80s, but in 1985 Reagan government officials were caught secretly selling arms to Iran to fund anti-communist fighters in Nicaragua. For a while this truly Strangelovian episode went by the old-fashioned moniker the Iran/Contra affair, but it soon succumbed to the powerful gate meme and became Irangate or Contragate.
Thereafter it was gates all the way and, speaking of monikers, the Bill Clinton presidency spawned no fewer than six by my count. His sex life alone gave us Monicagate, Lewinskygate, Tailgate, Sexgate and Zippergate. And then came Whitewatergate, the hellishly complicated land deals imbroglio that dogged not only Bill Clinton’s term but went on to taint Hillary’s candidacy by further arming Donald Trump with vague accusations of impropriety against her.
In some ways Whitewatergate was the zenith of gatehood. There was a kind of poetry in the fact that the property in question was actually called Whitewater, and in the way the wheel came back full circle to the US presidency both politically and etymologically with that fortuitous reference to the original.
But there was to be no closure on that score. Since then the yanks have given us nannygate – the practice of Washington high-flyers of exempting themselves from payroll tax on their domestic servants, silicongate – the furore over dodgy breast implants, and Tonyagate (or skategate): the bad-girl-skater kneecaps good-girl-skater story.
The Poms were no slouches, contributing Camillagate and Squidgygate (also known as Dianagate), which refer to sex scandals involving, respectively, Prince Charles when his sex life was still interesting, and his late first wife, God rest her soul, before their divorce. They also gave us plebgate or plodgate, when a British MP allegedly referred to English coppers as ‘plebs’.
There were probably more than that but my theory is that most gates are doomed to fade from memory eventually because they just aren’t that much of a big deal.
Such is the case with the many Australian gates I’ve collected since the early nineties. Who remembers any of these?
Bollengate: the judges-are-sexist-dinosaurs row. Doesn’t even register now on Google, so I can’t look it up to remind us who Judge Bollen was and what sexist thing he said.
Piggygate: the brouhaha arising from a briefly notorious pig-stabbing episode on the TV show Survivor. Also forgotten by Google.
Mategate: a mate of Richo’s is charged with fraud in the Marshall Islands in 1992. Richo rings President to Sort Things Out (unsuccessfully).
I have three Aussie Umpiregates, which do turn up on Google.
Umpiregate 1: arising out of the South African cricket tour of Oz circa 1994 and coined by Alan Jones. Don’t ask me what it was all about.
Umpiregate 2: Quite recent. Umpire Murray Head describes a Fremantle Dockers win over St Kilda in 2005 as ‘a victory for umpires’. Footy big shots up in arms. Eddie McGuire urges calm on all sides.
Umpiregate 3: something involving Collingwood. Bound to be a slur against a great team.
Likewise we have three Kellygates, all from the nineties and involving then Labor minister Ros Kelly.
Kellygate 1: Ros is caught out calling PM Bob Hawke’s New Federalism ‘crass politics’.
Kellygate 2: Ros okays schools-bound environmental teaching kit, but fails to read it and notice that it slags nation’s miners, farmers and foresters. Ros backpedals furiously.
Kellygate 3: Ros hands out pots of taxpayers’ money to sporting clubs in marginal Labor electorates. Also known as ‘sports rorts’ or ‘the whiteboard affair’.
Sandwichgate: Alan Griffiths, also a Hawke minister, caught out owning a sandwich shop. Can’t remember why that was against the rules and can’t work out whether it’s still alive online because other more recent sandwichgates from other countries have popped up to cloud the issue, mostly on Twitter, a toxic wasteland I’d rather not visit. However, I did find a more recent Aussie version…
Sandwichgate 2: Dateline 2017: happily married stay-at-home Mum seeks advice on social media on nice fillings to put in her hubbie’s cut lunches, incurring feminist condemnation as traitor to her sex. SORRY, gender.
Utegate: Used car dealer donates vehicle for use in Kevin Rudd’s 2007 election campaign. Malcolm Turnbull later produces email allegedly from dealer asking for preferential treatment from Rudd Government. Strange character Godwin Grech admits to faking email, Turnbull is mightily embarrassed. Also known as the OzCar affair, but that just doesn’t have the same quintessentially Aussie ring, does it? And utegate still turns up on a Google search.
Gategate: Yep, it had to happen sooner or later, and when it did it was right here in Tasmania: a small furore involving the theft of stock gates from rural properties. Can’t tell you exactly when, but I wrote it on my list some time in the nineties so it definitely happened! It doesn’t turn up on Google but I’m hoping my effort here will give gategate the internet immortality it deserves.
What makes a great gate? I’ve already nominated Whitewatergate, with its pleasing balance of concise meaning and elegant rhythm. But it’s almost too perfect! What you really need is an absurd juxtaposition of words and an overall clumsiness of look and sound.
Brussels sprout-gate fits the bill. My all-time favourite gate.
Here are the facts: Denise Drysdale got tired and emotional at the 2017 Ten network Christmas party and threw some brussels sprouts at Ita Buttrose. When the dust settled, Denise was apologetic, Ita was gracious and forgiving.
As scandals go, there’s not a hell of a lot to see here folks, I admit (although the question remains: what were brussels sprouts doing at a Christmas party?) But I’m sure you’ll agree that for sheer transcendent ridiculousness that touches on the sublime, brussels sprout-gate is hard to beat.
And just to prove I’m not making it up….