I recently attended a lecture by American historian David Oshinsky, who suggested, in response to a question about the origins of the anti-vaxxer movement, that Americans’ mistrust of government in general began in 1972 with Watergate. That’s also where the story of this Korean lexical item begins.
Keit’ŭ (게이트), pronounced something like “geh-ee-tuh,” is a Korean word for a scandal, generally a political scandal. These days you can see it in a lot of Korean headlines as the Park Geun-hye – Choi Soon-sil scandal continues to unfold. (The latest tidbit is that the Blue House, the office and official residence of the president, bought tons and tons of Viagra last December, but the scandal involves millions of dollars, dozens of companies from Samsung to Nexon, the government agency in charge of sports, a pseudo-Christian cult, equestrians, a K-pop video director and relationships stretching back to the decades of dictatorship. Read an excellent and detailed background explainer piece here.)
The mother of all American political scandals—as of this writing, pre-Trump presidency—was, of course, Watergate. Watergate was actually the name of the office complex where some of Nixon’s minions broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters, which is kind of what started the unraveling of Nixon’s whole shady operation.
In English we now add that last syllable, -gate, to words to name scandals—take Chris Christie’s Bridgegate or Tom Brady’s Deflategate. In fact, it appears that the very first adaptation of -gate as an English suffix meaning scandal also involved Korea, in a 1976 trans-Pacific influence-peddling scandal known as Koreagate.
This usage was borrowed into Korean as keit’ŭ (게이트). Due to the phonetic, orthographic and syllabic rules of Korean—there’s no native vowel like the English “long A,” and therefore no han’gul vowel to represent it—it’s actually a three-syllable word in Korean.
This borrowing had begun by the mid-1980s, but only for overseas scandals, so it may have been borrowed whole with the entire English-language scandal name. The first such instance I can find in the archives of BIGKINDS is in a 1986 article (“兩院 합동 特調委 촉구”) about the Iran-Contra affair, or Iran keit’ŭ (이란 게이트). (There are no articles with keit’ŭ from between 1968 and 1986 in the searchable database, though, so there could be earlier uses out there.) I found references beginning in the 1990s to other overseas incidents such as “P’ot’i keit’ŭ” (Pottygate, 포티 게이트), “Ink’at’a keit’ŭ” (Inkathagate, 인카타게이트), and the above-mentioned Koreagate.
Geit’ŭ wasn’t used for domestic Korean scandals until later, as this chart from BIGKINDS of its appearances in news articles suggests:
That first big spike, in 2002, is from a bribery scandal known as Choi Kyu Sun-gate (최규선 게이트), in which lobbyist Choi Kyu Sun coordinated the transfer of millions of dollars in bribes and a son of sitting President Kim Dae Jung was arrested. The very first domestic use I can find, though, was from 1997’s Hanbogate (한보 게이트), when Hanbo Iron and Steel Company’s bankruptcy triggered investigations that uncovered the bribery of politicians and bankers. Interestingly, a son of the then-president, Kim Young-Sam this time, was arrested in this scandal, too (Quah 2011). You can see a little bump there; previously, most references were to an old people’s sport called keit’ŭ bol (게이트볼, gateball) or to actual gateways.
This lexical item is also usually not an affix in Korean—that is, it’s not attached to a main word, as it in English—but is written as a separate word, although I don’t think it can be used alone to mean just a “scandal” (that’s usually sagŏn 사건, for the curious). Thus, the current scandal is often referred to as the Park Geun-hye – Choi Soon-sil keit’ŭ (박근혜·최순실 게이트), or just Choi Soon-sil keit’ŭ (최순실 게이트). Unfortunately, Park hasn’t yet taken the hint from the millions of protestors and gone the way of Nixon.
Anyway, it looks like even the worst of U.S. presidents can have an impact on languages around the world—I wonder if South Koreans will be saying pigŭlli (비글리—or “bigly”) a few years down the line?
A note on romanization: I inconsistently use -gate, keit’ŭ, and gate throughout this post. Although it bothers my rule-loving soul, doing otherwise is just too awkward and confusing because of the mix of English and Korean names and words involved. In fact, it’s so awkward and confusing that I initially mis-romanized it as geit’ŭ throughout this post… >_<
“兩院 합동 特調委 촉구.” 전북일보. 1986년12월4일. KINDS. 2016년11월28일.
“海外토픽.” 경인일보. 1990년11월05일. KINDS. 2016년11월28일.
이재근. “남아공 「인카타 게이트」 회오리.” 국민일보. 1991년07월23일. KINDS. 2016년11월28일.
정연주. “박동선씨 아프리카 독재자위해 활동(세계의 화제).” 한겨레. 1990년03월09일. KINDS. 2016년11월28일.