Romneyshambles and Vatileaks: variations on a theme

speech bubblesby Liz Walter

As my colleague Paul Heacock mentioned in his blog , the word omnishambles was one of the runaway successes of 2012. Coined in 2009 for the political comedy ‘The Thick of It’, it came to prominence last year when the leader of the UK’s opposition Labour Party used it to criticize the government’s April budget. The resulting soundbite hit the airwaves, and Labour MPs lined up to re-use the potent word as often as possible in order to hammer it into the public’s consciousness.

The ability of a new term to express a feeling so perfectly and with an element of humour is a major factor in its success. An added bonus of this particular word is that it is easily adaptable. So, for instance, when Mitt Romney visited London in July, it was not long before his series of gaffes, including less than tactful comments on Britain’s ability to host the Olympics, was dubbed the Romneyshambles.

Then, in October, after a chaotic week for the Scottish Nationalist Party, their leader Alex Salmond was accused of plunging the party into a Scomnishambles. This coinage was a particularly humiliating reference to the fact that Mr Salmond had himself used the term Scolympians for the Scottish Olympic athletes.

Users of the English language seem to love this play on words, and it works particularly well for compound words (formed from two or more words) or portmanteau words (formed from the beginning of one word and the end of another). In 2006, the organization WikiLeaks – itself a compound word formed from wiki (a web page that can be updated by anyone) and leaks – began to cause international uproar by publishing leaked documents, including many relating to matters of US defence activities. It is no surprise that when allegations of corruption surrounding the pope were leaked, the resulting scandal was quickly named Vatileaks from the fact that the leaks originated in the Vatican.

Key to the use of such variants on a theme is the fact that at least one part of them is so well-known that the resulting coinages will be easily understood even though the entire words have never been heard before. So if we meet the word celebutard, we are able to infer that it is a combination of celebrity and retard, and therefore a highly critical word.  Other variants of this which have cropped up in print recently are libtard for a person of liberal views (in the left-wing UK sense), and the libtard’s natural adversary, the teatard, a member of the US Tea Party. These new, invented words work effectively as a humorous, shorthand way of expressing the author’s opinion.

The quintessential example of this kind of adaptation has to be Watergate, an episode that has spawned literally hundreds of variants in the 40-odd years since it happened. Only last December, the UK was transfixed by a fracas between a senior Conservative politician and a police officer, that quickly became known as plebgate. That one little suffix –gate added to the incendiary term pleb (the high-handed and derogatory word for a person of a low social class which the politician was alleged to have used) conveyed a whole paragraph’s worth of scandal, indignation, and mockery.

Playing with language in this way is one of its delights, and one of the ways in which new words enter the lexicon. People often ask how a lexicographer decides when to put a word in the dictionary – with coinages like these, the question is almost irrelevant. They will continue to be invented and used whether or not they are recorded in any formal way, and whether or not they catch on and enter the mainstream, simply because they are useful and because they are fun.

Hugh Rawson will examine more uses of the suffix –gate  in his next post on the Watergate Scandal.

One thought on “Romneyshambles and Vatileaks: variations on a theme

  1. Pingback: Romneyshambles and Vatileaks variations on a theme Cambridge | Vatican Report

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