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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(v.) to increase gradually, to grow

So here’s an etymological tidbit to undermine everything you thought you knew about everything: the word escalate only came into existence in the English language after we’d invented escalators.

It seems almost too strange to believe, and judging by some of the incredulous comments that tweet received on Twitter, a lot of people really didn’t believe it. So here’s the full tale.

The very first escalators appeared in the late 1800s. Back then, many of the early designs were given verbose and quintessentially Victorian names like the ‘revolving stairs’, ‘endless conveyor’, and ‘inclined elevator’. (That being said, it’s certainly not unheard of to still hear them called ‘moving staircases’ today.)

It wasn’t until the turn of the century that New York’s Otis Elevator Company patented the very first so-called ‘Escalator’, using an entirely new brand name for which they initially held a trademark. Their design won first prize at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, and the rest is moving-pavement history.

As escalators became ever more common sights in the early twentieth century, Edwardian writers needed a word to describe the act of moving, travelling, or riding on one. The concocted verb escalate—formed by chipping off that –or suffix at the end of escalator—fit the bill perfectly. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it first fell into use in the language in that sense in 1922 .

Two questions, though. Firstly, if escalate wasn’t a word before we had escalators—where on earth did the Otis Company get the name Escalator from?

We may not have had escalate, but in nineteenth-century English we at least had the verb escalade. Derived from French (and at greater length from Latin), escalade essentially meant to climb a wall, often with the implied use of a ladder or set of makeshift steps. In that sense it proved a particularly useful word in military contexts, and often came into use in the context of besieged cities and scaling the outer walls of fortifications. By combining that existing word, escalade, with the already fairly well-established word elevator (in turn derived from the already well-established verb elevate), the Otis team had their name.

So what happened next? How did we go from a word that means ‘to ride on an escalator’, to the word escalate as we have we have in the language now? Or, to put this second question into more straightforward terms, WTAF?

It was in the 1950s that the verb escalate first began to be used more figuratively to mean to grow, increase, or somehow gradually progress from one stage to another—like a pedestrian ascending or moving along an escalator. This figurative use filled a hole in our language and caught on quickly—but at the same time, escalators were becoming such unthinkingly familiar parts of our day that having a separate word just for the act of stepping onto one and moving between the floors of a building wasn’t quite so worthy of comment as it once was. That led to the older meaning being cancelled out, and the invented figurative meaning we have today becoming the better-established one. What makes this entire process all the more staggering, however, is just how well-established this new meaning has since become.

The etymological process by which escalate was formed from escalator is called back formation. Ordinarily, we’re used to creating words by adding various morphological (i.e. word-building) units together, be they established words joined together in a compound (like note + book = notebook), or prefixes, suffixes and other detached units of language, known as bound morphemes (like pre–, anti–, –ology and –ism). No matter how this process takes place, though, we’re used to word-building essentially being a process of accretion—of adding one thing to another thing to create a larger whole.

But in back formation that process works in reverse. A longer, more rounded word enters our language fully formed, leaving us with little choice but to chip elements off it in order to create its derivatives. English, for instance, adopted the word enthusiasm from French, and so we were forced to knock that ending off it to fashion the related verb enthuse. The same goes for the likes of burgle (a Victorian invention back-formed from the crime of burglary), homesick (an eighteenth-century adjective invented by taking the –ness off homesickness), and fluoresce (which didn’t exist until writers in the 1800s had broken apart the noun fluorescence).

Back formation often proves particularly useful when new inventions come along, as the names of new products and services often demands an accompanying vocabulary of words. When the television was first invented, for instance, the need to have a word meaning ‘to broadcast on television’ emerged along with it, and so we back-formed the verb televise from the name of the device required to do just that.

Finding out that televise was back-formed from television isn’t too surprising, of course (especially given that the process of televising something by definition requires the existence of a television). In comparison, what makes finding out that elevate was back-formed from elevator so shocking is that this connection to the device itself has long been lost—cast to the linguistic wayside in the 1950s when the more figurative use of the verb flourished. Long story short then, by charting the history of this word through out language, we’re not only able to prove that this unbelievable tale is entirely true, but why we might find it so unbelievable at all.


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