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?!
I was really glad when the summer holidays were over, and I’m a bit nervous we’re now into the school half-term holiday… and here’s why.
Every time someone misused the word ‘staycation’, a little piece of me died.
Okay, I’m exaggerating but only just.
As far as I’m concerned, a staycation is a holiday spent in your home. It’s a stay home vacation. A staycation.
I’m pretty sure that’s the original definition of the word and I’m backed up by various sources❡. Even Wikipedia, that bastion of all things etymological, lol, says: “This article is about a vacation where the people return home overnight. For a vacation taken within one's home country, see domestic tourism.” Burn.
But, increasingly, staycation is being used as a word to mean holidaying in your home country, and that just blows – my – mind.
This only really works for tiny countries such as the UK. Can you imagine being a resident of, say, Corpus Christi, Texas and calling your two-week trip to Tacoma, Washington a staycation?! It’s a distance of more than 2,000 miles. You’re not “staying” anywhere near your home.
Hmm. I’ve just talked myself into understanding why ‘staycation’ can be used in a country the size of the UK, which, compared with the USA, is so small that anywhere you go you are quite close to home. Lol.
But the thing about the UK is that, though it be small, it be mighty. It is rich and diverse in landscapes, environments, cultures, habits, accents, customs, and legends.
The week I spent on the windswept yet beautiful Shetland was nothing like the week I spent surfing* cerulean waves in Cornwall. And that was nothing like the weekend I recently spent in blowsy, buzzing Liverpool. Which is nothing like my matronly and somewhat staid hometown. You get the picture.
That’s my first problem – the claim that staying in the UK, no matter where you might be, is anything like staying at home.
My second objection to using the word so broadly is one involving privilege.
I was six when my mum and dad took me on our first family holiday. We stayed for a week in a farmhouse in Rutland, where I rode a horse for the first time, and saw a grass snake.
That was a holiday. My mum and dad didn’t have much cash and it was such a luxury to go away. Away being the operative word.
My second holiday was between seven and 10, when we stayed in a self-catering cottage, possibly in the Cotswolds. (My memory is so hazy I don’t even remember where it was!) There was a stable door to the cottage and a horseshoe on the wall inside. We were away on holiday.
My third family holiday was at the age of 10, when we stayed for a week in – oh joy of joys! – a hotel in Norfolk. We went boating on the canals, swam in the indoor pool and the other children teased my dad about his Scottish accent. We were, you’ve guessed it, away on holiday.
It wasn’t until I was 12 that I flew (alone! To visit an old schoolfriend) to Ireland, though that was Northern Ireland so still doesn’t count as being abroad☥.
And I was about 14 when my family and I finally made it to the extremely exotic town of Concarneau, in Brittany, France.
When I was in my 20s and living and working in London, I took a week off work and didn’t go anywhere. Or rather, I stayed at home but went visiting a couple of museums every day for a week. It was culturally enriching and hugely enjoyable. That was a staycation.
If you can leave your home and stay on a campsite, in a self-catering cottage or a hotel, avoiding chores, taking time off work, you are lucky to be able to afford to. You are on holiday. Some people don’t get to do that, and when they see folk talking about a ‘staycation’ they had the other end of the country, it can be a bit galling.
Basically, if you leave home, for however long, be it a weekend or a fortnight, you are on holiday. And this is the hill I will die on. 😁
❡ https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/staycation [Although stating a staycation can be taken “near your home” is rather open to interpretation]; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Staycation; https://tourismteacher.com/staycation/#0-what-is-a-staycation
* Okay, body boarding. I’m not that cool.
☥ Though I stand to be corrected on this.
In a world that’s becoming more inclusive and understanding of diversity comes the new importance of understanding etymology and the origins of certain words.
Put simply – think about what you say before you say it…
This has been drawn to my attention a couple of times in recent months, both times by mums with neuro-diverse children. (Now there’s an expression – neuro diverse – that wouldn’t have been dropped into casual conversation until very recently.)
And both times, these mums called out the use of particular words as being essentially offensive.
The words? Loony and cretin. And looking at them there, in all their bald glory, of course they’re offensive. They’re used as insults, right?
The word “cretin” is often used as a synonym for idiot but if you look into its background, you’ll find that “cretinism” was originally another name for those suffering congenital iodine deficiency syndrome, a medical condition present at birth, marked by impaired physical and mental development.
Of course, it would have been the condition’s mental impairments that led to “cretin” being used interchangeably with stupidity or idiocy – itself, at heart, an incredibly offensive attitude. Cretin, idiot, moron… these are all ableist slurs.
As for loony – this one elicited much more of a discussion over on a certain social media platform. It’s especially an issue up here in Scotland, where the “loony dook” is an annual event. This sees hardy (foolish?) souls launch themselves into the sea on New Year’s Day – on the East Coast no mean feat, since the ocean is the North Sea.
And the implication there is much clearer – the sort of person who swims in Scottish seas in the depth of winter is a “loony”. A lunatic.
Many of the responses to the mum drawing attention to this, though polite, essentially shouted her down. It wasn’t meant as an insult, they said. It was a harmless joke. And, in this context, that might be true.
But loony is still an insult. And using it so casually in an otherwise harmless context is only normalising the insult, not weakening the word. It reinforces the word loony as an indicator of someone’s reduced mental stability – and thereby reinforces mental ill health as something that should be stigmatised.
Remember when the National Spastics Society changed its name to Scope? When the word for a particular condition (in their case cerebral palsy) becomes buried in our everyday lexicon as an insult, perhaps it should be abandoned altogether.
So, what do you think? Is a word harmless when its user doesn’t mean to be rude? Or are certain words just intrinsically… offensive?
This is the bit where I write about wordy and linguistic things that take my fancy...