English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Are you down on “escalate”?

Q: I have a colleague who insists on using the word “escalate” this way: “I cannot help you with your query/complaint so I will escalate it to somebody who can offer assistance.” Is it correct to use the word “escalate” like this?

A: We’re not fond of this “customer care” usage, as you can tell from our post in 2009 on the jargony use of “escalate” in the business world.

In its newish biz-speak sense, “escalate” means something like “pass along to the next stage.” This usage cropped up relatively recently (perhaps within the last decade) and it isn’t yet recognized in standard dictionaries.

We won’t say it’s “incorrect,” merely that it’s an adaptation of the verb “escalate” that hasn’t yet entered common, everyday (that is, non-corporate) speech.

The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, has no citations for this use of “escalate.” (In fact, it doesn’t even have an entry for “customer care,” though it includes the phrase in a couple of other contexts.)

Even in its original sense, “escalate” is a recent verb. It entered English, the OED says, in 1922, when it meant “to climb or reach by means of an escalator” or to travel on one.

The verb is what’s known as a back-formation, a word formed by dropping part of an existing one. “Escalate” was formed by dropping part of the noun “escalator” (a moving staircase), a word first recorded in 1900.

The verb acquired a figurative meaning in the atomic age—to increase by stages, especially, as the OED says, “to develop from ‘conventional’ warfare into nuclear warfare.”

The dictionary’s first citation for this new sense is from a 1959 issue of the Manchester Guardian: “The possibility of local wars ‘escalating into all-out atomic wars.’ ”

Most of the OED’s examples for this figurative sense are references to war, though a handful forsake the battlefield, including these from the 1960s:

“The wish of the author to magnify or escalate (favorite new word in Washington) the importance of a trivial utterance by grandiloquent terminology”—from Horizon magazine, 1963.  

“Only a tiny percentage of cannabis-smokers escalate to heroin”—from the Listener, 1967.

Even peacetime uses of “escalate” tend to be negative. The “escalating” is often from bad to worse (as in “health costs are escalating”). This makes us wonder why the word was attractive to the jargonistas of the business world.

As we’ve said, standard dictionaries haven’t yet recognized the customer-care sense of the word, in which to “escalate” a complaint means to pass it on to a higher level.

However, the online source Wiktionary has this definition: “In technical support, to transfer a telephone caller to the next higher level of authority.” 

Only time will tell whether this usage escalates from corporatese to common usage. However, we wonder if a word that summons doomsday images can ever inspire customer confidence!

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