Separating ‘scam’ from gate’

What makes an unethical action a mere scandal or just another scam, as opposed to being labelled a ‘gate’?

While the Inuit Eskimos may have only a handful of words for snow, the dark alley of financial misdeeds warrant a larger vocabulary.

The media cannot get by with parroting ‘scam’ to its masses and needs to confer exalted labels on at least few scams.

Scam + cover-up = ‘Gate’

Coalgate has coal in its core, Choppergate had helicopter buying and Railgate involves the Railway Minister (now an ex). But Watergate, from which scams that involve large-scale Government cover up originates, referred to an office complex in Washington DC, USA.

In 1972, the Democratic National Committee (belonging to the party in opposition) headquarters situated in this complex was broken in to.

Evidence mounted that Richard Nixon, the Republican President, had a role to play.

The Government attempted a cover-up, but thanks to the persistence of two Washington Post journalists, the high-drama that involved cash, wire-tapping and other illegal activities. Nixon had to resign and many officials were convicted.

For a scam to take-on the gate suffix, Government involvement, typically the Central Government may be needed. The issue should also be serious enough to bring about the downfall of the ruling government. So, the fodder scam in Bihar and the Adarsh Housing Society scam in Maharashtra may not be worthy of this status. The 2G scam fits the bill perfectly, but it was never called a gate – possibly because it was a mouthful to say 2Ggate.

In non-English speaking countries, ‘gate’ equivalent word in local language is applied for cases when politicians reaped a personal benefit and used the Government machinery for hiding the same. Lately though, the word has been bandied about more carelessly with Biscuitgate (British Prime Minister’s reluctance to declare his favourite biscuit) and Nutellagate (Colombia University spending $5,000 a week on chocolate spread).

No government = no gate

Non-government misdoings are usually not conferred the privilege of using gate after their name. Exceptions include the race fixing issue in Singapore Grand Prix - called Crashgate.

However, the IPL contract bidding issue was not termed a gate, as the public has not directly lost money or entertainment quality as a result of this.

For financial wrong-doings too, gate suffix is usually not used.

Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh and Satyam scams caused huge losses to stock market investors.

These, other investment schemes such as pyramids, plantation and recently Saradha are classified under one of the threenames – fraud (one-off illegal action) or scam (repeated fraud) or Ponzi (scam without an underlying business activity).

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