Mind your language

‘Escalate’: an exciting new way to say ‘pass the buck’

One of the smaller things for which South Yorkshire police commissioner Shaun Wright might consider apologising

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

Shaun Wright, the police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire, spoke to Sky television last week about how little he knew of sexual exploitation of young people in the area. ‘This report demonstrates that lots of information was not escalated up to political level or indeed senior management level,’ he said. ‘For that I am hugely shocked and hugely sorry.’ He did not apologise for having used the word escalated, no doubt because he thinks it is a fine and proper thing for a man in his position to use the word escalate.

Mr Wright uses escalate in a different sense from the escalation reported in the papers last week of violence in the Middle East. I was complaining mildly here in the spring (Mind your language, 15 March) about de-escalating, which is what David Cameron called for in Ukraine. He hasn’t got it. But in this warlike sense, the Yorkshire Post, in a thoughtful leader last week, complained of Mr Wright’s ‘failure to prevent this abuse escalating to the extent that it did’. When he employs it, though, Mr Wright intends it as a management term meaning ‘refer upwards’. Eventually the buck stops, if only by entropy.

To some people inured to management language, escalate may even have positive connotations. Kent County Council’s regional growth fund runs a loan scheme called Escalate. Its motto is: ‘Helping your business reach the next level.’ ‘Take it to the next level’ often appears in compilations of hated business-speak.

The counterpart to management escalation is cascading. Thus, if you are setting goals for performance-related pay (which is in reality related to targets rather than performance), then you pass them down to those below you in the hierarchy, and they pass them down to those even lower. That is cascading. It is used transitively: you can cascade things. It was used transitively from the 1980s in a slightly specialised sense: ‘To relegate (old but still serviceable stock, especially buses, railway coaches, etc) by stages to successively less exacting uses.’

Thus it is that passing the buck and handing things down are dignified by terms that to the uninitiated seem obscure, but to tickers of boxes are of the greatest consolation. 

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