how to escalate a problem

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Aug 31 18:15:10 UTC 2005

On Aug 31, 2005, at 10:20 AM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:

> So "escalating" a disaster, like the hurricane, is a good thing.
> What about "the disaster is escalating" (about to be reviewed by
> people in charge) ?
> Such speakers must think that when the Vietnam War was "escalated,"
> it was "bucked" to a higher authority.  (Or "hire authority," as it
> soon will be.)


we're dealing with a new sense of "escalate" here -- well, one that
once was new in a relatively specialized context but now seems to be
spreading.  what's at issue is whether the new sense arose from a
metaphorical extension or by malapropism.

in either case, a new sense will coexist with older senses.  this is
the way semantic change -- indeed, all linguistic change -- works:
new variants coexist with old ones, sometimes virtually forever.
sometimes, of course, the old variant eventually disappears, but it
never disappears *immediately*.  a new sense of "escalate" doesn't
shift all the old senses.

this coexistence of senses isn't particularly problematic.  polysemy
is everywhere.

arnold (zwicky at

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