ORIGIN OF “ESCALATE” EXPLORED

The Sun Journal recently explored the verb “escalate,” which is derived from the industry word “escalator.” According to the Lewiston, Maine-based newspaper, the verb was coined in the early 1900s to describe the action of riding “up an escalator.” By the 1930s, “escalator” was being used to describe the clause in labor contracts referring to increases in wages. At around the same time, “escalation” was used in reference to naval treaties. Later in the century, “escalate” began to be used more in its current meaning — that is, “to increase in extent, volume, number, amount, intensity or scope.”

 

As for the word “escalator,” it was used by Charles Seeberger to describe his redesign of Jesse Reno’s invention first used as a Coney Island novelty ride in 1895. Reno’s passenger-carrying conveyor belt was described as a “moving stairway or inclined elevator.” Seeberger, who partnered with Otis Elevator Co. in 1899, dubbed his creation an “escalator” by combining the Latin word for step, scala, with the word “elevator.”

 

Interestingly, Otis trademarked the word “escalator” but lost this protection when it was ruled that the word had become generic. It met the fate of other formerly trademarked words, such as “cellophane,” “trampoline,” “shredded wheat” and “aspirin.” All of these words lost their trademarked status when authorities ruled that the companies that owned the rights had failed to adequately protect the words from entering common language — that is, the words were being to describe products marketed by other companies.

 

Years ago, I was a sports editor for a chain of newspapers in Alabama and used a word that was trademarked without using the proper mark following the word. (I think it was either Hula Hoop® or Frisbee®). In any event, a few weeks later, I received a nice letter from a lawyer representing the Wham-O company, which markets both toys. He very politley reminded me to use the registered trademark symbol when referencing the company’s products. In this way, Wham-O was acting diligently in protecting its trademarks.

 

Elevator World, Inc., does the same thing with its products. For instance, the biweekly electronic newsletter EW produces always carries a registered trademark (ELENET®), and its annual industry directory is copyrighted (The Elevator World SOURCE© 2009). Other industry organizations do the same. The Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation protects the term Safe-T Rider©, and the National Association of Elevator Contractors does the same with Certified Elevator Technician (CET®). Most companies either trademark or copyright the names of their products.

 

As a “wordsmith” (a person who works with words), I have always been fascinated by word origins. Some origins are lost in antiquity, while others are disputed. One such interesting word is “elevatoring,” which was first used in ELEVATOR WORLD in August 1955. Obviously based on the noun “elevator,” the verb “elevatoring” has come to be used to describe the practice of designing elevator systems (i.e., determining the number and size of the cars needed to adequately service the occupants of a building).

 

I don’t know for sure when this term was first used, but the story around our office is that it was coined by EW founder William S. Sturgeon. WCS, which is how he is most frequently called by the EW staff, has a certain way with words, as evidenced by the column he continues to write after more than 60 years in the business. He retired before I joined the EW editorial staff, but office lore says that he would invent words to fit what he wanted to say. When anyone told him that the word did not exist, he would respond by saying every word had to start somewhere and by using a word, it became a word, regardless of whether it can be found in a dictionary. Considering that “elevatoring” is now used throughout the industry and across the globe, I’d say he was right. 

— David

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