When the uproar over a trove of stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University started back in November 2009, I resisted calling the incident “Climategate.” Yet it appeared in almost every post we wrote about it at Mother Jones, because it very quickly became the shorthand that everyone seemed to be using to refer to theft and release of a number of emails between notable climate scientists. When I wrote a feature on the episode a few months ago, it was back in the headline because my editors and I agreed that this would be the name most readily identifiable to readers.
But there were always misgivings. Anything with the suffix “-gate” automatically implies scandal, of course, and the term is overused, to say the least. It seemed, however, we were stuck with it, and in rather short order after the emails were released. Our valiant fact-checker Jaeah Lee and I tried to figure out who exactly was responsible for coining it in this particular case. We didn’t really figure it out conclusively, but now David Norton, recent graduate of American University’s master’s program in Public Communication, has devoted considerable time and attention to it. Norton put together a detailed timeline, via AU communication Professor Matt Nisbet writing over at Big Think.
Norton pretty much concludes that the term started in a comment thread on the skeptic blog Watt’s Up With That a few days after the emails were first posted online. Within hours, it spread to other blogs and Twitter. Interestingly, Norton notes that environmentally-minded folks who thought it was a non-scandal were also inadvertently instrumental in helping the term “Climategate” catch on:
Over the next several hours, the term “climategate” propagated through blogs and on Twitter, and began to supplant the proper noun “east anglia” as an indexical and referable moniker. With the early, near-ubiquitous adoption of such a straightforward snowclone, the incident became implicitly controversial and scandalous by its very name. Environmentalists challenging the nascent meme could do little to stop its spread, and in fact, may have inadvertently solidified its name as a framing device.
The paper is an interesting read. Of course, calling the incident “Climategate” was a lot more simple than calling it “that time when some unknown person procured and released a number of emails between climate scientists, potentially via illegal means.” But it’s a helpful reminder that what we call things matters, particularly when a meme can take on a life of its own online.