Good thing fish don’t have ears.
Dear Word Detective: Doing a crossword puzzle, I ran into the word “billingsgate” as the answer for the clue “abusive language.” Never having heard this use of “-gate” (as in “public scandal”) among Watergate, Billygate, etc., I looked it up at Merriam-Webster.com. Sure enough, there it was with origin: “Gate and fish market, London, England. First usage 1652.” I was under the impression that Watergate (as a scandal) got its name from Watergate hotel and the other “-gate” words followed the pattern. How does “billingsgate” relate to these other usages? Was there some really wild fish-fight at this London market? — Gary.
Fish fight! Fish fight! Speaking of fish fights, I’m a fan of the Animal Planet network show “Whale Wars,” in which members of the Sea Shepherd conservation organization try to stop whalers from whaling on the whales. I mentioned the show to someone a few weeks ago, and it became apparent that they had never watched it at least in part because they assumed it was a sort of cetacean “Fight Club,” with whales fighting each other, or something. I suppose such a thing is possible. After all, Moby Dick is just the story of a whale nursing a grudge.
I had to look up “Billygate” to be certain I remembered what it was, and while I vaguely knew President Jimmy Carter’s brother had been accused of influence-peddling, I didn’t recall that he had actually been paid pots of money by Libya. He should have stuck with Billy Beer. “Billygate” took place in 1978, which wasn’t that long after the Watergate scandal (named after a break-in at Democratic Party headquarters at the hotel in 1972) had led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, so the name made sense to most people. (“Watergate” is a venerable English term for something, such as a floodgate, that either controls the flow of a stream or river or controls access to it, and the hotel was so named because it overlooks the Potomac River.)
But in the decades since, “gate” has blossomed into quasi-journalistic shorthand for “possible scandal” or “someone says something’s fishy here” or “my dog barks at the TV when that guy’s name is mentioned.” So now we get “Troopergate,” “Travelgate,” “Memogate,” “Gatecrashergate,” “Poodlegate,” ad nauseam, and a new “gate” every week. (Originally I thought I had made up Poodlegate, but it turns out to exist, and involves Al Gore’s thighs. Eww.) William Safire, who was working in the Nixon White House when Watergate erupted, subsequently took great joy in coining “gate” terms in his newspaper columns, and in 1988 he noted that his favorite creation, referring to a minor accounting dustup, was “doublebillingsgate.”
None of this, however, has anything to do with “billingsgate” meaning “abusive language.” “Billingsgate” is the name of one of the gates that originally controlled access to the city of London (“Billing” being the proper name of the builder of the gate). The Billingsgate area lies on the North bank of the River Thames, and Billingsgate was originally a “watergate,” affording access from London to the river for cargo and passengers. The most notable feature of Billingsgate, however, was the fish market established there in the 17th century, known for its chaotic atmosphere and the loud and raucous cries and shouts of its fishmongers. Apparently the shouting went well beyond the norm for a sales pitch, and Billingsgate became famous for the vituperative profanity that filled the air on a typical day, giving us “billingsgate” as a colorful term for foul and abusive language.
Lest you be picturing this sort of swearing contest as a purely male pursuit, it’s worth noting that many of the fish merchants in markets such as Billingsgate were women known as “fishwives” (“wife” being used here in the then-common generic sense of “woman,” especially one of the lower classes). Their ability to match the men in volume and profanity lives on in the phrase “to swear like a fishwife.”