The headlines are full of escalation and de-escalation today:
- “Situation in Ukraine escalates”
- “NATO calls on Russia to de-escalate”
- “Russia-Ukraine tensions escalate”
- “Obama urges Putin to de-escalate”
And so on.
De-escalate is an ugly word. It is mostly familiar to me from my call centre days, when the subject of “de-escalating” angry customers (of which there were plenty) was brought up on the first day of training, and reinforced many many times subsequently. The most cardinal sin one can commit in that environment is to “escalate” a call, meaning pass a call up the chain to a supervisor, who is too busy making a pie chart out of your last week’s bathroom time to talk to a customer. De-escalation was thus paramount.
As it is in today’s headlines.
Thanks to The Hermit, I have learned it is not just an ugly word, it is also an etymologically curious word. When I gave it any thought at all, I assumed a situation or a mountain could be escalated, and that an escalator – the moving stair device - was named for this quality of ascension. Surprisingly, “escalate” itself is derived from the word “escalator” and not the other way round. It is what is called a back-formation. The escalator came first.
While the word “escalator” to describe the system of moving stairs goes back to the turn of the twentieth century, a look at Google’s delightful Ngram viewer (which shows in helpful chart form the prevalence of chosen words in English literature) reveals a sharp rise in the use of the word “escalate” around 1960, it being unused before 1940. It’s ugly brother, “de-escalate” didn’t come into usage until the mid 60s, and has had blessedly minimal use since then.
Until the media really gets its teeth into it. If today’s headlines, and Putin’s actions, are any indication, Ngram will one day show a spike in the usage of “de-escalate” starting in 2014.