The Grammarphobia Blog

Escalator clause

Q: I have an item for your consideration – a really egregious business neologism. I emailed Home Depot about a problem with a pet door and got this reply: “We have carefully reviewed your concern and found it necessary to escalate it to our Resolution Team.” So now we’re escalating customer service, not just war.

A: This use of “escalate” is entirely new to me. (Not to mention rather bizarre!) But a bit of googling finds that it’s common among customer-service types.

In the lingo of customer service (no, I won’t say “customer care”), the word “escalate” is routinely used in the sense of referring a complaint to a higher authority or moving it along to the next step.

Well, this customer doesn’t buy it.

The verb “escalate” originated in the early 20th century as a back-formation from the noun “escalator.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)

The noun “escalator” started out as a trade name for the moving stairs introduced by the Otis Elevator Company in 1900.

The verb showed up in 1922 and originally referred to climbing or traveling on an escalator, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the mid-20th century, the verb took on the figurative meaning of “to increase or develop by successive stages.”

The first published reference in the OED for the figurative usage is from a 1959 item in the Manchester Guardian that discusses the “possibility of local wars ‘escalating into all-out atomic wars.’ ”

Most of the OED citations use the verb in a negative sense. Thus, things like wars, threats, accidents, drug abuse, and even pompous language are said to “escalate.”

Because of these negative associations, it seems jarring to me to have a customer-service representative use the verb to refer to the handling of a customer complaint.

If this usage bugs you enough, perhaps you should escalate your complaint to the “corporate communicators” at Home Depot’s Public Relations Department.

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