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The Many Meanings of 'Father.' How Watergate Changed English. Punim

Episode Summary

"Father" as a word shows how we humans love to extend our metaphors. Did you know it was only relatively recently that priests were referred to as "father," for example? And then, for the 50th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, we look at the "-gate" suffix and what made it so successful that it has spread all over the world (even to non-English-speaking countries).

Episode Notes

"Father" as a word shows how we humans love to extend our metaphors. Did you know it was only relatively recently that priests were  referred to as "father," for example? And then, for the 50th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, we look at the "-gate" suffix and what made it so successful that it has spread all over the world (even to non-English-speaking countries).


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| HOST: Mignon Fogarty

| VOICEMAIL: 833-214-GIRL (833-214-4475)

| Sources for the "father" segment by Valerie Fridland

"father, n." OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed June 05, 2022).

"pope, n.1." OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed June 06, 2022).

"thing, n.1." OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed June 06, 2022).

Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). "Abbot." Britannica Academic. Retrieved June 5, 2022, from

Elder, Gregory. Nov. 15, 2007. Why do we call priests father? Redlands Daily

 Facts. (accessed June 06, 2022).

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff.

Today, in honor of Father's Day in the United States, we'll talk about the word "father" and some of its more interesting meanings, and then in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, we'll talk about the "-gate" suffix and its interesting uses.

But first, I have an interesting tidbit and a couple of corrections from listeners. First, following up on the wisdom teeth piece from a couple of weeks ago, Daniel Sosnoski told me that in Japanese, wisdom teeth are called "oyashirazu no ha," (forgive my pronunciation if that's really off) meaning "the teeth parents don't know about." I loved that! Because they tend to come in after a child has moved out of the house. I found that just delightful. What a great name for them. Thank you, Daniel.

Next, in response to last week's piece about demonyms, KittyMaehem on Twitter is Australian and asked me to point out that although I said the nickname for Australians can be "Aussie" or "Ozzie," Australians themselves only use the "Ozzie" pronunciation. The British use "Ozzie" too. It turns out that "Aussie" is a particularly American pronunciation.

And finally, EclecticLeeS on Twitter very kindly pointed out that I had pronounced the name for people from Key West wrong. It's spelled C-O-N-C-H, which I pronounced as "conch," but it is actually pronounced "conk." So people from Key West can be called "Conks," and the shell is pronounced the same way. Both pronunciations are actually listed in the dictionary, but EclecticLeeS said when he visited, the locals told him it was pronounced Conk.

Finally, since I'm doing housekeeping here , I also want to let you know that I've completely revamped my email newsletter, and now, instead of just providing links to what we've published in the past week, I'm writing summaries of interesting language articles and highlighting some of my favorite posts. It's much more meaty than in the past, so check it out the next time it hits your inbox or subscribe by clicking the "subscribe" link in the show notes.

And now, on to the show.

The father of invention? How the concept of father has changed — and stayed the same — through time.

On Father’s Day, we take time to reflect on what our fathers mean to us, but, taking a little bit of a linguistic detour, it is also a great day to think about how the word "father" evolved far beyond just meaning a male parent to becoming a word we use to refer to people as varied as priests and inventors — despite the fact that none of these involve any kids.

Where fathers come from

Although we might think of our fathers as pretty old timers, they’ve got nothing in terms of age on the word "father" itself. The word appeared as "fædor"[VAE-der, see Wordhord] in Old English texts and evolved from English’s own distant parent, a language known as Proto-Germanic that dates back to about 2500 B.C. Although we obviously don’t have YouTube videos from this far back to provide evidence, we do know that all languages that descended from Proto-Germanic share a very similar word for "father" (think "Vater" in German), which suggests it came from this common source. Since the word’s origin is hypothesized to come from baby talk — the "pa" or "da" babies babble — it is likely this meaning of "male parent" is the original and oldest meaning for the word.

But besides carrying this original meaning of intimate kinship, we also find a lot of early Old English biblical references using the word "father" referring to God in the sense of a spiritual father, in other words, as being responsible for humankind. So, this tells us that this extended meaning of the word co-existed with the sense of physical father throughout at least the history of English. And considering the prevalence of other languages in which deities are referred to as mothers or fathers, this sense of spiritual father that developed metaphorically from that of being a parent also has been around a long time. 

A priestly father?

Although it is quite common in modern times to hear priests being referred to as fathers, this is actually a surprisingly recent use of the word. According to religious scholarship, in the early days of Christianity (around the 4th century), only the bishop of Rome was referred to with the title father, although, at the time, he was called "papa" instead of "father" since that was a child’s word for "father" in Latin and Greek. It is from "papa" used in this way that we get the modern English words "pope" and "papal."

The extension of the word "father" to refer to all priests did not start until quite a bit later. In the Middle Ages, monastic priests in Europe started the trend, as the word "abbot," or the head of a monastery, is derived from the Semitic word "abba," meaning "father." And since these abbots were priests, they began to be referred to as fathers. By the 18th century, all monastic priests in Europe were called "father," and, in the 19th century, the archbishop of Westminster ordered the title be adopted for all priests, monastic or not.

While this meaning of the word is related to its sense of being a spiritual father, as we just discussed, it still involves a shift in meaning to refer to spiritual stewardship or oversight, as opposed to the "progenitor" sense involved when it was used to refer to fathers as either physical or spiritual creators of life. 

The father of invention

But moving even further away from the sense of a kinship relationship, there is the more modern use of the word "father" to refer to someone who is the founder or originator of something: for instance, calling Noam Chomsky the father of modern syntax or Alan Turing the father of modern computing. The figurative use of the word "father" in this way to refer to a person deemed responsible for something doesn't appear until about the 1500s, when Socrates was mentioned as the father of philosophy. But, by the 1700s, this use becomes more pervasive, where we can find it in places as different as writer John Dryden calling Chaucer the father of modern poetry to a newspaper calling someone the father of the canal. This use of the word has shifted its meaning even a bit more from its original sense, with no human offspring involved at all. Instead, the offspring is now an entity or an idea.

From one comes all

Today, people still use the word "father" in all these senses, and, although their meanings are different, all of them still seem to be rooted in the most primordial of our relationships — that of a father to a child. Clearly, the link in all these varied meanings is the idea of nurturing and creation. So, the leap from creating or caring for a baby, to creating or overseeing a flock, to creating an art form or an innovation is not hard to make. 

When we see meaning shift from an original sense to a more general sense like this, linguists call it semantic broadening. This has happened over and over again in the course of English. For example, the word "thing" was originally used to refer mainly to legal or judicial matters, but now is used much more generally to refer to, well, all sorts of things. And the word "bird" has shifted from referring to only a young bird in Old English to all birds more generally in modern English. This process of words taking on expanded meanings as time marches on is part of the creative process of language and a testament to our predisposition to embrace metaphors. 

Of course, for both "thing" and "bird," the new meaning pretty much subsumed its old meaning, so that legal things and young birds are included, but, no longer primary, in the shifted sense. "Father," on the other hand, still mean "dad," first and foremost, and this type of stability in meaning is no small thing over a few thousand years. 

That segment was written by Valerie Fridland, who is a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada in Reno and the author of a forthcoming language book "Like, Literally, Dude" about all the speech habits we love to hate. You can find her at or on Twitter at @FridlandValerie.

The -Gate Suffix

Fifty years ago this week, June 17, 1972, five men were arrested breaking in to the Watergate complex in Washington D.C.'s Foggy Bottom neighborhood in an attempt to photograph documents and bug the office of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters, which was housed in one of the office buildings.

Over the next two years, the scandal grew as it became apparent that the break-in had deep ties to the Republican Committee to Re-Elect the President (officially abbreviated "CRP" but eventually known by the derisive acronym "CREEP") and as it became apparent that the cover-up went all the way to President Richard Nixon himself.

A little more than two years later, Nixon resigned, and by that time the reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had become famous for their investigative journalism and coverage of the story for the Washington Post. But the name "Watergate" had also become famous — so famous that the "-gate" suffix broke off and is now combined with other words for scandals big and small.

Let's start with the name "Watergate": It's actually not clear where the complex got its name. There are multiple stories including that there was a Water Gate Inn restaurant on the edge of the site before the big complex was built; that Watergate was named after a nearby gate, also known as a lock, that regulates the flow of water on the Potomac River; and that it's named after the steps of the nearby Lincoln Memorial, actually called the Watergate Steps, that go down to the river and were originally intended to be an entry to the city for people arriving by boat — a water-based city gate, so to speak.

But regardless of how Watergate got its name, by 1973, just a little over a year after the break-in, "-gate" was already being combined with other words to name scandals. The first use seems like it was meant to be a joke, appearing in the magazine "National Lampoon" and referring to a Russian scandal as "Volgagate," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And then just a month later, a more serious example appeared in a "Newsweek" article that referred to a scheme to pass off cheap wine as Bordeaux as "winegate."

And from there, it was off to the races. In just the 1970s, the Oxford English Dictionary lists examples including "Dallasgate," "Koreagate," "Hollywoodgate," "Motorgate," "Billygate," "Cartergate," "Cattlegate," "Oilgate," and so on. As you can tell, these "-gate" words rely on the public knowing what's happening. Today, few if any of those scandal names call to mind their particular details, but I'm sure at the time they were meaningful to the audience. But this lack of specificity means that names sometimes get reused for different scandals. For example, there are multiple Sharpiegates.

Part of the reason "-gate" spread so widely is that sound-wise, it's easy to combine with other sounds, but not always. Take "Irangate" for example. That term was occasionally used for what is now more widely known as the "Iran-Contra Affair," but "Irangate" doesn't just roll off the tongue as well as some other combos, so it didn't seem to stick.

It's possible the "-gate" suffix also got a boost from New York Times political columnist William Safire, who was also widely known for his weekly "On Language" columns for the "New York Times Magazine," but who  had also been a speech writer for President Nixon. Noam Cohen, writing for "New York Magazine" in 1996, cataloged 20 "-gate" words that Safire had coined for later scandals, including "Peanutgate," "Angolagate," "Lancegate," "Debategate," "Nannygate," "Troopergate," "Whitewatergate," and supposedly Safire's personal favorite, "Double Billingsgate."

Cohen speculated that one of Safire's goals was to rehabilitate Nixon's reputation by "relentlessly tarring his successors with the same rhetorical brush," and Safire later apparently admitted as much to Eric Alterman, who said in his book "Sound and Fury: The Making of the Puditocracy" that Safire told him that "psychologically, he may have been seeking to minimize the relative importance of the crimes committed by his former boss with his silliness" about "-gate" words.

But regardless of his motives, the "-gate" suffix had a powerful and enduring champion in Safire.

And as an aside, I think of things like "-gate" as suffixes, but linguists often call them "libfixes," a word coined by Arnold Zwicky in 2010 to describe parts of words that are "liberated" and then used to form new words. Other examples are "flation" from "inflation," which has given us the words "stagflation" and "gradeflation"; "kini" from "bikini," which as given us the words "tankini" and "burquini"; and "mageddon" from "Armageddon," which has been summoned for such disasters as "carmageddon" and "snowmageddon."

The difference between a suffix and a libfix is that libfixes tend to have a more specific meaning. A "gate" can be silly or monumental, but it pretty much always refers to a scandal. Whereas a suffix like "-dom" (D-O-M) can be added to words to create the sense of a place or a state, as in the words "kingdom" and "freedom." So basically, a libfix has a more constrained meaning, like "a scandal" for "-gate" or "something you wear to swim" "for "-kini," and a suffix can have a much broader set of meanings. (But I do also find myself wondering if older suffixes just have broader meanings simply because they are older and have had more time to acquire meanings.) It also seems to me that a libfix often takes its meaning from its origin word in a way that suffixes don't. For example, "-gate" had no meaning relating to a scandal before "Watergate," and "-kini" had no meaning relating to swimwear before "bikini," which was the name of a group of islands in the Pacific before it was borrowed for swimwear.

Another fascinating thing about the "-gate" suffix is that even though Watergate was an American scandal, "-gate" has spread throughout the world.

The British seem to love the "-gate" suffix, coming up with many of their own "gatey" scandals. The partying-during-COVID-lockdown scandal has been called "partygate," and more distantly, one BBC article listed "Horsegate" for a horse meat scandal, "Woollygate" for a scandal in the wonderful "Wallace and Gromit" animated film "A Close Shave" in which Gromit is mistakenly sentenced to prison for sheep racketeering, and "Bingate" which referred to a contestant in "The Great British Bake-Off" being disqualified after throwing a ruined baked Alaska in the trash bin.

And "-gate" meaning a scandal isn't limited to the English language either. Amazingly, to me, it's used in other languages too. For example, in the journal "American Speech," in an article by Brian Joseph, I found examples from German, where a political scandal in a state bounded by the Baltic Sea and North Sea was called "Waterkantgate," from "Waterkant" meaning "seaside," and from Greek, where a scandal involving the director of the national telephone system, Mr. Tobras, was referred to as "Tobragate."

Another "American Speech" article by Miklós Kontra describes multiple Hungarian "-gate" scandals including a scandal involving the post office in a town on the river Rába that was called Rába-gate and a scandal involving the release of high school examination questions called "matúra-gate," "matúra" being a word for "exam" in Hungarian.

Finally, Mandarin Chinese also has a version of the "-gate" ending for scandals that uses the Chinese word or symbol "-mén," or 门 which means "door or gate." "Watergate" was translated literally by combining the Chinese for "Water" and "gate," "Shuǐmén," and then just as in English, the "-gate" part, "-mén," later became attached to other words to make the names of scandals, although one person told me that these words are more likely to refer to foreign scandals than local scandals in China.

So the next time you think of Watergate, think not only about how the scandal brought great cynicism to American politics, but also about how the name produced an unlikely English-language success story, with the "-gate" suffix working its way around the world with a new and useful meaning for scandals as serious as Watergate and as frivolous as Bingate. Some people may call it a lazy cliche, but after all these years, it's definitely here to stay.

Finally, I have a familect story from Jasmine.

"Hi, Grammar Girl. My name is Jasmine, and I had a familect story I wanted to share with you. In my family, our familect is pretty complicated or unique because my father grew up speaking Yiddish with his parents and grandparents, and so some of the words have made its way into our familect, but not necessarily always keeping their original meaning. And so it's only when I got older and started, you know, really researching my heritage more, in hearing more of the Yiddish language, that I realized this. So one example of that is 'punim.' 'Punim' means 'face,' but that's not how we used it in my family. In my family, 'punim' meant 'grumpy,' but in kind of a cutesie way, like you would say to a little kid, like, 'Oh, look who woke up from their nap. They're being a punim,' or 'Why you have to be such a punim today?' Well, I found out later on that, I guess when I was little, I had a face I would make, a real grumpy face, and they'd go, 'There it is. There's the punim,' and apparently it just evolved over time until that means 'grumpy' in my family. So we're using real Yiddish words, but it's kind of interesting how families just have them take on their own meaning. So that's one of my familect stories, and I love to hear all of yours. So thank you, and I look forward to hearing more. Bye."

Thank you, Jasmine. I love that story; it's so cute. And you're right. It does highlight how familect words change and drift just like other words. It's such a common thing, just like the word "father" in our first segment.

If you want to call with the story of your familect, a word your family and only your family uses, you can leave a voicemail at 83-321-4-GIRL, and I might play it on the show.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes and my editor Adam Cecil. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, and our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings. Our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, whose favorite candy is black licorice and will happily take all your black jelly-beans. And our intern is Brendan Picha.

I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.


"father, n." OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed June 05, 2022).

"pope, n.1." OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed June 06, 2022).

"thing, n.1." OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed June 06, 2022).

Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). "Abbot." Britannica Academic. Retrieved June 5, 2022, from

Elder, Gregory. Nov. 15, 2007. Why do we call priests father? Redlands Daily Facts. (accessed June 06, 2022).