“Why isn’t it called a
runathon?” I asked myself and uninterested fellow runners
during my first and only marathon two years ago.  
“That would be silly,” I was informed.  “A
marathon is so named becausePheidippides ran 26.2 miles from the
city of Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. totell the Athenians that
the Greeks had defeated the Persians.”

Dan Mullkoff

Perhaps it is also silly to use the word marathon and the
derived suffix –athon to describe doing anything for
“an abnormal length of time.” Following the 1896
Olympics in Athens, at which the 26.2 mile race was dubbed
“the Marathon,” events of all sorts became -athons,
from 1908’s “Murphy Marathon” potato peeling
contest to the annual “Stay-Awake-Athon” at the
University of New Hampshire, with bikeathons, telethons, and
bakeathons along the exhausting way. No one is peeling potatoes,
baking, or staying awake for 26.2 miles, so all these events have
in common with the city of Marathon, named for its native marathou
plant, is that they take a long time, as did one event that began
in Marathon 2,500 years ago.

This shameless misusageathon is a stirring example of the
American tradition of contriving suffixes and applying them to any
and all words we can. One could dub it suffixgate, so it shares its
ending with virtually every scandal since the Watergate break-in in
1972.  The media has clung to this newfound practice of
“gating” every scandal that comes about in government
and society, from France’s Winegate in 1973 (perhaps the
first misusage of –gate in this sense, this scandal involved
wine sellers attempting to pass off wine from Southwest
France’s Midi region as wine from Bordeaux. Why, I
never…!) to Irangate (a.k.a. Contragate) and Monicagate
(a.k.a. zippergate). Presumably, only fortunate timing (i.e. dying
before Nixon was elected president) saved Warren G. Harding from
constantly hearing about the Teapot Dome Gate scandal during his
term. These contrived terms are not metaphors thoughtfully relating
present events to Watergate; indeed, most recipients of –gate
share nothing with Nixon’s scandal but the involvement of an
elected official.

The media seems to add –gate to every scandal in order to
cheaply evoke Watergate, the series of events which gave Americans
such a distrust of government that the emotional reaction
associated with that scandal can be transferred to whatever the
scandal du jour may be, creating public interest and selling
newspapers. Not as harmful as William Randolph Hearst’s
Mainegate, but uncreative nonetheless.

Lest we forget the classic Christmas-gift-for-old-women T-shirt
slogans chocoholic and shopoholic. Presumably these are people
dependent on “chocohol” and “shopohol”
respectively, whatever those may be.

Not to say that there is no place for Bollywood-style clever
misusage of invented suffixes. Clinton’s Whitewatergate would
have been a cleverer term had Nixon been African-American (but one
could use the phrase “…had Nixon been
African-American” to qualify far more interesting ideas than
that).

And I would have enjoyed hearing the media refer to Strom
Thurmond’s recentposthumous scandal as daughtergate, but it
didn’t seem to catch on. Strom, I might add, had witnessed
the media’s savvy at misusing suffixes firsthand after a
North Carolina newspaper writer nicknamed Thurmond’s
States’ Rights Democratic Party the Dixiecrats in 1948 (Alan
Burns of Clemson’s Strom Thurmond Institute informed me that
the term was not used by Strom or his supporters until after the
1948 election, if at all).  The intent of the term Dixiecrat
was to carry the meaning of Democrat and along with it most of the
ideals of the Democratic Party to the faction through the suffix
–crat.  But nothing in -crat implies “government
of the people,” and it could just as easily have carried
other connotations, from aristocrat to plutocrat.  -crat (can
you start a sentence with a hyphen?) merely means “a
supporter of a specified form of government,” so literally, a
Dixiecrat would support a government of the American South.
 As long as we’re coining terms for Strom’s party,
Segregationcrat and Racistcrat come to mind.

It seems the retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) may be the last
surviving Dixiecrat, but I would also call attention to a close
relative of the group, the states’-rights-supporting and
Republican-siding Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), whom I would call a
Bible-Beltcrat.

But if adding –stock can magically transform a word into a
music festival, can adding –aquiddick turn it into a
drunk-driving manslaughter scandal, thanks to Ted Kennedy’s
incident? Can the 1993 ambush in Mogadishu, Somalia, spawn words
like Fallujadishu to describe recent events? It wouldn’t seem
any more absurd.

Who is to blame for suffixgate? Partially the media, for
exploiting the public’s emotions in order to turn a profit;
partially carnival barker-esque entrepreneurs, for drawing crowds
to their businesses with absurd names like Washeteria and
Elvis-a-rama; but largely, the American public, for allowing itself
to be manipulated and wrung of its hard-earned dollars through such
spurious means. The multitude must demand creativity in order to
receive rich, thought-out rhetoric from the media and others.
Perhaps then, contrived suffixes will be confined to clever gems,
and we’ll hear more Ypsituckys and fewer Enrongates.

 

Dan is quite the fan of strange, off-the-wall trivia that
will serve him no purpose in the future. If you share this love,
e-mail him your stories at
“mailto:mullkoff@umich.edu”>mullkoff@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *