escalators viewed from the bottom with a glass roof in the background showing dramatic height

That escalated quickly

Do you ever wonder where certain words come from?

I’m constantly tripping over words in conversation, suddenly wondering, after years of not really giving them much thought, where they came from and why we came to use them.

Today’s lesson in etymology: escalator!

I can’t remember why the word escalator suddenly stopped me in my tracks, but it’s in my list of words to research and so here we are.

I initially assumed that it came from the verb “to escalate”. And my next assumption was that escalate must be a Latin term meaning “to move on”, or something.

Note: I have never learned Latin.

This ain’t no Latin lesson

So you’ll appreciate how much my mind was blown when I learned that the verb “escalate” – “to increase or develop by successive stages” – was first recorded in use in 1959, in the Manchester Guardian, and was derived from the word for a moving staircase!

This isn’t some Latin term that’s been in circulation in the English language for centuries.

When we see what we consider a fairly benign exchange on social media degenerate into defamatory name calling and we respond, “well, that escalated quickly,” we’re using a word that came about only after the escalator was invented!

The verb “to escalate” – established in 1922 – originally meant “to travel on an escalator”.

That’s it.

Es-CAL-a-tor!

Charles Seeberger, an American inventor employed by the Otis Elevator Company trademarked the word escalator in 1900.

Charles, advised by lawyers to give his moving steps a name, flipped through a Latin dictionary and came up with scala, meaning ladder or sequence. He prefixed scala with “e” and suffixed it with “tor”, possibly to emulate the already existing elevator.

It was originally pronounced es-CAL-a-tor, which has much more of a He-Man crossed with King Arthur ring to it (maybe I’m mixing up Skeletor and Excalibur).

Far from being an old-school Latin word absorbed into the English language, escalator was made up by an American inventor.

Isn’t that interesting?!

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