Word of the Month: Watergate
Thirty years ago this month, five men were arrested breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. Among those arrested was James W. McCord, Jr., the security director for Republican President Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President. The investigation into the break-in would expose ever larger circles of corruption and abuses of power in the Nixon White House and would eventually, in August 1974, lead to the resignation of the president.
Watergate, as the collection of scandals came to be known, was the biggest American political scandal of the 20th century. It left an indelible mark on US history, politics, and on the American political lexicon. So, in honor of this 30th anniversary, our word of the month is:
Watergate, n., a hotel-apartment-office complex along the Potomac River in Washington, DC. In 1972, the Democratic National Committee had its offices in the complex and on 17 June of that year burglars working for the White House broke into the offices to plant listening devices. Watergate became the name of the associated scandal. Subsequent Washington scandals were commonly dubbed with the -gate suffix, such as Koreagate, Irangate, and Monicagate.
Other terms created or popularized by the scandal are:
Big Enchilada, n., the person in charge, the most important person or thing. Coined by Nixon’s Domestic Policy Advisor John Erlichman in March 1973 in reference to former Attorney General John Mitchell. The term follows in the tradition of big cheese, big fish, and bigwig. Erlichman claims he used enchilada because of his fondness for Mexican food.
Bug, n. and v., electronic eavesdropping device. From underworld slang going back to 1919, because a small microphone resembles an insect. Common in criminal argot and in crime and spy fiction before Watergate, the word gained widespread currency as a result of the press coverage of the break-in.
Cover-up, n. and v., concealment of wrongdoing, obstruction of justice. The term actually dates to the 1930s underworld slang, but was popularized by Watergate.
CREEP, n., unofficial acronym for the Committee to RE-Elect the President; the official abbreviation was CRP. Surprisingly a Democrat didn’t coin this derogatory acronym, but rather Republican National Committee Chairman Bob Dole did. He thought his organization was being given short shrift in the campaign.
Deep Throat, n., an informant, particularly the one that aided reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post in uncovering the Watergate scandal. That pair’s editor, Howard Simon, coined the name. The name is a play on the term deep background, newspaper jargon for a source who is only used to confirm what others have already told a reporter and who is never quoted—not even anonymously, and the title of the famous pornographic movie which was released in 1972 and quite popular at the time. The identity of Deep Throat has never been revealed.
Enemies List, n., a list of political opponents who are to be harassed and otherwise interfered with. The name was coined by White House Counsel John Dean who ordered the creation of the original list. Now used to refer to any such list of names.
Executive Privilege, n., the right of the US Executive Branch to withhold certain types of information from Congress and the public. While the concept goes back to the founding of the republic, the phrase is relatively new. It was first used in the 1950s and gained widespread use during Watergate.
Expletive Deleted, c.phr., phrase used in the publicly released transcripts of the Nixon White House tapes to mark where the president and his aides used profanity. The transcripts are filled with the phrase.
Follow the Money, c.phr., coined by Deep Throat as advice to Woodward and Bernstein. It refers to the investigative technique of tracing monetary payments to find who is involved a secretive venture.
Hardball, n. and adj., rough, aggressive competition. From the imagery of baseball v. softball, but the term isn’t originally from sports lingo. It was first used in 1944 in reference to the Chicago newspaper business. The term was widely used by the press to categorize the tactics of Nixon’s 1972 campaign and Watergate.
Plumber, n., one who plugs leaks of information to the press, the term was coined in 1970 by David Young, who along with G. Gordon Liddy, had the task of investigating White House leaks to the press. The name was later applied to the Special Investigations Unit, led by Liddy and Howard Hunt, which in 1971 took on this task of plugging leaks through illegal methods. Liddy’s and Hunt’s plumbers were most infamous for their failed break-in of the office of a psychiatrist in an attempt to uncover derogatory information about Daniel Ellsberg, a patient who had leaked The Pentagon Papers, an exposé about the prosecution of the Vietnam War, to the press.
Ratfuck, v., dirty tricks used to discredit an opponent during a campaign. Donald Segretti and Dwight Chapin coined the term during their college years in the late 1960s. They used it to refer to dirty tricks used in campus politics in Southern California. They brought the term with them to the campaign and the White House when they went to work for Nixon.
Saturday Night Massacre, n., the firing of three top Justice Department officials on 20 October 1973. On that Saturday night, White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson refused and resigned. Haig then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned. Haig next called on Solicitor General Robert Bork, who finally fired Cox. Bork went on to contribute another word to the American political lexicon. Bork, v., to attack and defame someone in the media. The verb is from the successful Democratic effort to stop Bork’s nomination to the US Supreme Court in 1987. The Democratic borking of Bork was, in part, revenge for his role in the Saturday Night Massacre.
Smoking Gun, n., incontrovertible evidence of guilt. Coined by Republican congressman Barber Conable during the Watergate investigation. The original smoking gun was a 23 June 1973 tape of a conversation between Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, where Nixon gave explicit instructions to have the CIA interfere with an FBI investigation of Watergate. The reference is to the imagery of finding a murderer still holding the smoking murder weapon.
Twisting in the Wind, c.phr., left exposed, abandoned. Another coinage of John Erlichman’s, he used the phrase “twisting slowly, slowly in the wind” in reference to the failed nomination of Acting FBI Director Pat Gray to the post full time. The phrase evokes the imagery of a corpse dangling from the gallows. Many other writers used the imagery before Watergate, but Erlichman supplied the exact wording for the catch phrase.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton