As the government faces the aftermath of another scam, the name with which media is referring to that scam is of some linguistic interest.

The Indian Coal Allocation Scam is being widely referred to as Coalgate, a variation on the Watergate scandal with the added punny bonus of it sounding the same as a popular toothpaste brand.

The Watergate scandal, apart from leading to then president Richard Nixon’s resignation, became immortal when countless scandals around the world began getting named after it, all ending in -gate.

Note that while the -gate in Watergate had nothing to do with any scandal, the suffix -gate used in subsequent scandal names is meant to convey the meaning of a scandal by alluding to the original Watergate. In a word such as Coalgate, the -gate ending has no relation with an actual gate, and functions only as a reference to Watergate, and could be interpreted to imply a scandal.

Such a derivation is called a snowclone. Wikipedia defines it as:

snowclone is a neologism for a type of cliché and phrasal template originally defined as “a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants”.

The term snowclone was coined by Glen Whitman and Geoffrey Pullum and alludes to the myth regarding Eskimo words for snow,

If Eskimos have N words for snow, then surely the X have M words for Z

This is a popular rhetorical trope that has permeated journalism, management, and academia in general, and is often used to imply that a particular group X has reasons to keep thinking about Z. The whole enterprise is funny, because, not only is the conclusion wrong (more terms for a word need not imply that the culture thinks about that object all the time, nor is the reverse true), but even the original premise on which it was based is wrong (the Inuit language does not have a large number of snow words).

There’re loads of other examples of snowclones. The -core suffix used in many metal genres also behaves like a partial snowclone morpheme (I say partial because -core continues to hold part of its original sense of central/essential). Phrasal templates such as _X is the new Y, The first rule of X is that you do not talk about X_ are all snowclones. If you find such stuff interesting, do check out the Snowclones database, which has a huge collection of snowclones, many of which you will find familiar.