- escalateis a 1920s back-formation from escalator (first recorded in 1900), and has burst the bounds of meaning that a word for a moving staircase might be expected to impose. Not surprisingly, escalate is now rarely used in its first meaning ‘to travel on an escalator’. By the 1950s, it had come into regular use to mean ‘to increase or develop rapidly by stages’, chiefly in the context of military and political conflict. Typical examples from that time (the first intransitive, the second transitive, i.e. with an object) are:
• The possibility of local wars ‘escalating into all-out atomic wars’ —Manchester Guardian, 1959
• Using tactical nuclear weapons which would be likely to escalate hostilities into a global nuclear war —Economist, 1961.In more recent use, escalate continues to be used in such contexts but has extended beyond them:
• The police more often came under physical attack and began to respond with a steadily escalating counter-violence —Liberty and Legislation, 1989
• Her previous calm gave way to terror that escalated until it threatened to overwhelm her —E. Blair, 1990
• Motoring organisations yesterday urged drivers involved in a road rage encounter to try to keep calm and not to react in a way which could escalate the situation —Herald (Glasgow), 2000
• As a means of controlling escalating domestic prices and utilising all of China's resources for domestic consumption, Beijing has recently abolished the 8% tax rebates on exports —Lloyd's List, 2007.
Modern English usage. 2014.