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.
My initial assumption was 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.
So you might appreciate just 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”.
The word escalator was trademarked in 1900 by Charles Seeberger, an American inventor employed by the Otis Elevator Company.
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 – prefixed with “e” and suffixed 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?!
Fan fiction – or fanfic – is a genre that’s been floating around on the edges of my consciousness for a while now, and it’s been quietly fascinating me.
Is it plagiarism? Is it unoriginal? Is it a homage to established authors? Is it a love letter to famous works?
Fanfic does use a published author’s characters, settings and ideas – unauthorised (see what I did there?) – so there is a huge red flag waving above the issue of copyright and intellectual property.
But fanfic is rarely professionally published, so its author isn’t necessarily making money from somebody else’s hard graft.
Although… 50 Shades Of Gray was famously fanfic born out of the Twilight series of books, and has arguably gone on to garner just as much (financial) success. 50 Shades author EL James changed only the names of the lead characters to avoid infringing copyright.
Then, of course, you have all the Jane Austen novels whose plots are closely mirrored in very poorly disguised ways in modern films (and books): Clueless, based on Emma; Material Girls, based on Sense & Sensibility; Bridget Jones’s Diary, inspired by Pride & Prejudice and even having a love interest called Mark Darcy!
The characters and settings might not be original but many of the ideas, events and storylines sure as heck are. Have to give credit to the fanfic creators for their imagination…
Well, would you write so much about a character you hated? Even if you did find a particular author’s canon risible, parodying it is a form of homage, too, isn’t it?
See above – the fact that much fan fiction is enjoyed by what amounts to a clique of a famous author’s supporters, with the resultant fanfic rarely being published for money, points to a particular kind of ardour.
Personally, I’m quite envious of fanfic authors’ output. They’re being creative, they’re making up stories, they’re writing. Kind of admirable, no?
They’re forming an entire community of fanfic authors, readers and crits, and even have their own terminology, eg, “drabble”, which is a piece of writing that is only 100 words, and “shipping”, which means… well, this is far too complex to define now. Read more here.
The fact that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello and As You Like It were apparently all based on fiction by other authors is merely proof that fanfic is nothing new.
How many human stories can there be in the world? Even when we’re writing about dogs, aliens and robots, we still attribute them with human fears, hates, loves and desires! All the stories in the world are just an endless recycling of the same emotions played out in a limited number of ways by different characters in different settings.
Why wouldn’t admirers of a particular genre or author play around with their characters and settings and come up with their own plots? While, at the same time, forming a community of likeminded fic lovers and storytellers?
Well, not every published author is happy with this movement, and it’s not really surprising. Even if you don’t want to protect your income source (and, let’s face it, who wouldn’t?), you’d want to get full credit for the art you create, wouldn’t you? Your work is your baby.
While JK Rowling has said she is “flattered” by fanfic, Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer is grudgingly pragmaticabout it, and Interview With The Vampire’s Anne Rice and Game Of Thrones creator George R R Martin are vehemently opposed to such works.
Indeed, Martin has said: “My characters are my children… I don’t want people making off with them, thank you. Even people who say they love my children. I’m sure that’s true, I don’t doubt the sincerity of the affection, but still… No one gets to abuse the people of Westeros but me.”
Neil Gaiman once said, “I think that all writing is useful for honing writing skills. I think you get better as a writer by writing, and whether that means that you’re writing a singularly deep and moving novel about the pain or pleasure of modern existence or you’re writing Smeagol-Gollum slash you’re still putting one damn word after another and learning as a writer.”
But Martin also said: “Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.”
So this war of words rages on…
Where do you stand?
This is the bit where I write about wordy and linguistic things that take my fancy...