The Word “Escalator” Is Older than “Escalate” and Other Quirks of Back-Formations

One of my favorite sets of mindbending etymological facts is that:

A) The word “escalate” didn’t exist before the invention of the escalator.

B) The word “escalade,” which is not originally a brand name for a Cadillac SUV, did exist as early as the 1500s as a word for scaling fortifications with ladders.

Yes, really.

“Escalator” was coined in the 1890s, while the verb “escalate” isn’t recorded until the 1920s as a back-formation of “escalator.”

Meanwhile, as far back as the 1590s, the word “escalade” is recorded as a word “to climb,” and in English it first appears in the context of using ladders to climb the walls of a fortified structure. It is related to the word “scale,” as in to scale a cliff, and originally comes from this Italian word meaning “to climb something using a ladder.”

“Escalade” entered English via French, from the Italian scalata “climb with a ladder,” from Italian scala “ladder.” (It’s also related to “scale,” a verb meaning “climb,” which in Middle English was, similarly, a noun meaning “siege ladder.”)

A Bit of Escalator History

The earliest working escalator was patented in 1892 by Jesse W. Reno and introduced as a novelty ride at Coney Island a few years later. He called it the “Endless Conveyor Elevator.” 

In the meantime, George H. Wheeler also patented a moving stairway. 

Charles D. Seeberger, who bought Wheeler’s patent, was the one to coin the term “escalator” when he trademarked it in 1898—which, by the way, means that the word “escalator” is a genericized trademark, also known proprietary eponym, much like “bubble wrap,” “xerox,” “jacuzzi,” and “ping pong.”

Seeberger landed on the word “escalator” by combining the earlier word “escalade” with the word “elevator.”

Oh, and speaking of elevators, the word “elevator” is probably a lot older than you think—like, the 1600s. At that time, it meant a “person or muscle that lifts other things,” and in the late 1700s it was extended to technology to refer to the earliest wooden grain elevators.

And although “escalate” is a back-formation of escalator, “elevate” is not a back-formation of elevator—it predates the word “elevator” by about a century.  

But “elevate” may be a back-formation of the word “elevation,” which is recorded yet another century earlier.

On Back-Formations

In fact, a lot of Latin-derived nouns that end in -tion were adopted directly into English from French, and then we back-formed them into verbs. 

For instance, “evaluate,” “regurgitate,” “exploit,” and “destruct” entered English after “evaluation,” “regurgitation,” “exploitation,” and “destruction.”

“Resurrection” was adopted into English directly from Old French in the 1300s. But the verb form “resurrect” isn’t recorded until the 1700s. 

In fact, as recently as the early 1900s, “resurrect” was considered to be incorrect because the Latin root verb of “resurrect” is resurgere. So if you’re being prescriptive about Latin word-forming patterns, the verb form of “resurrection” would be “resurge.”

Obviously this changed because “resurrect” sounds more natural with “resurrection.” But, as a result of that pedantry, the noun “resurgence” arose starting in the early 1800s, even though the standalone verb resurge is no longer as common.

And then it also happens with words that don’t use this ending: “Scavenge” is a back-formation of “scavenger,” and “swindle” is a back-formation of “swindler.”

Why does this happen?

Noun forms like this have a habit of entering English first because often languages have need of nouns before they need specific verbs to go with them. Humans tend to want to be able to name things and concepts before they name the actions surrounding them. That’s part of the reason English has about three times as many nouns as verbs, and so does French.

We invent new words in this way all the time. Many of the words Shakespeare supposedly “invented” were just him changing the part of speech. Some of his back-formed verbs include “negotiate” from “negotiation” and “metamorphose” from “metamorphosis.”

But back-formations also happen with other parts of speech:

The verb “sulk” is a back-formation of the adjective “sulky.”

The adjective “grandiloquent” is a back-formation of the noun “grandiloquence.”

Sometimes back-formations can become word-forming elements and pieces of portmanteaus. For example, outside of the context of poetry and music, “the verse” is a common back-formation of “universe.”

“Universe,” which is made up of Latin elements (unus “one”+ versus “turn”) that give it the literal meaning “turned into one.”

So “verse” literally means “turn,” but over time it has become a word-forming element meaning “world or realm.”

And you can stick it onto words like Metaverse, or onto onto fandom-centric terms to describe fictional universes: like the Buffyverse, the Whoniverse or the Duniverse. 

According to the book Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction this use of “verse” was first used in this way by Orson Scott Card, the Ender’s Game universe the Enderverse.

(However, I contest that this usage of “verse” is much older than that, because philosopher William James coined the word “multiverse” using the same element from “universe” in the 1890s, and it works very similarly.)

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