Q&A: Elevator vs lift

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're pushing buttons…

Q: Hey AWC, can we talk about the thing that helps you to easily get from one level to the next?

A: Oh, do you mean an online writing course from AWC?

Q: Haha, cute and nice plug by the way, but no. I’m talking about the thing that you might find in a hotel lobby. It has lots of buttons and gets you to your room quickly.

A: Oh! The bellboy? His jacket has lots of shiny buttons and he definitely knows the fastest way to your room.

Q: Nooooo. It has doors and goes “ping”!

A: A refrigerator?

Q: Okay, now you’re just messing with me.

A: Yeah, now we are. It seems like you want to talk about the elevator – also known as a lift.

Q: That’s right! And in particular, why does it have two names? They’re both fairly obvious in their descriptions.

A: That’s true. To “elevate” or to “lift” you up from floor to floor. 

Q: One of them must have come first, right?

A: Probably. But first, let’s look at which verb came first. “Lift” has been around in English since the 13th century – in the early days it was more in a figurative sense relating to rank or dignity. By the 14th century, it became more about raising things off the ground. 

Q: We have lift off!

A: Indeed – although of course the concept of “lift-off” wouldn’t come along until 1907 – soon after the Wright brothers did their thing. By the way, another type of lift is “to steal”. You might be surprised to learn this definition came along very early – in the 1520s. “Shoplifting” followed in the 1600s.

Q: Okay, so is “elevate” newer?

A: Yes, that word didn’t arrive in English until the early 1500s, from the Latin elevatus, meaning to lift or raise. Again, it didn’t take long for it to also get linked to rank and status. Another word that debuted with a similar meaning during this time was “hoist” – from Dutch and German origins. 

Q: And many Australian clotheslines thank this word for its service to backyards.

A: Haha, yes, the Hills Hoist rotary line is an Aussie classic. According to an old phrase, you can also be hoisted by (or “with”, or “on”) your own petard…

Q: Oh, Petard? Wasn’t he that bald captain in Star Trek?

A: Um, no, that was Picard. To be “hoist by one’s own petard” (or similar variations) means to fall into your own trap – essentially for your plan to backfire. It originated in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1605, and a “petard” is basically a small and rather blasty bomb.

Q: I never liked Hamlet. There were no little pigs in it at all.

A: …

Q: Anyway, can we get back to “lift” and “elevator”? 

A: We can. And the first mechanical contraption wasn’t actually for people at all. Grain elevators were first named in 1787 – and were a way of quickly moving large quantities of wheat grain up into tall storage silos. These “prairie sentinels” were common across middle America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but now are largely iconic relics today.

Q: I’m sure there’s a grain of truth in that. But what about the ones for people?

A: Putting aside the possibility that Leonardo da Vinci likely drew up the plans for the first such machine back in the 1500s, the first actual devices didn’t really arrive until steel construction of high-rise buildings made them a necessity in the 1800s.

Q: Good point. I suppose before then, “get fit by taking the stairs” was just a given.

A: Yep. An early steam-powered example in Britain during the 1820s was named “the ascending room” – albeit more of a tourist attraction. This was followed in the 1830s by another British counter-weighted system called the “Teagle”. But it was the Americans who figured out how to harness the power of hydraulics and the first “safety elevator” debuted in New York in 1852 – invented by a chap with the surname Otis.

Q: Wait! I see “OTIS” in lots of elevators today! 

A: Yep, he made a company out of it. And his contribution was important – figuring out a way to stop you plummeting to your death if the cable broke. 

Q: Always useful, that one…

A: His successful demonstration saw the first “passenger elevator” installed in a five-storey building in Manhattan in 1857, although it took some years for people to warm to the idea.

Q: You might say that people took steps to avoid it!

A: Hilarious.

Q: Okay, so I guess the term “elevator” came first then?

A: Yes – especially if you include all the grain and mining uses leading up to the first passenger elevators. However, almost immediately in the 1850s, the British coined the term “lift” for a passenger elevator. Maybe they just didn’t like the name the Americans had given it.

Q: Perhaps it was sour grapes over being beaten to the best design?

A: That could also be it. Whatever the case, right from the start, both words set up camp on either side of the Atlantic, with technological advancements continuing thick and fast in the decades that followed. 

Q: Well not THAT fast – they still needed an operator for most of the 20th century, right?

A: Actually, automated elevators were invented in 1900, but people were simply too scared to use them without a trained operator. Ironically, it was actually an elevator operator strike in 1945 that forced manufacturers to add emergency buttons and telephones, which ultimately led to greater peace of mind for passengers riding unaccompanied.

Q: Oh, dear, you might say that the elevator operators were hoisted by their own petard!

A: True. It was sad on so many levels…

Q: Bahahaaaa. 

A: Anyway, despite the same electric technology used across the globe today, you’ll still find Americans using “elevator” and the British using “lift” for the same thing.

Q: I guess they’re just raised differently…

A: Hahaha, so many elevator jokes.

Q: I know right? So Americans don’t use “lift” at all?

A: Not for what we’ve been describing. They may however call a simpler open platform a “lift” – maybe for getting a wheelchair from one level to another etc. 

Q: And here in Australia?

A: While Britain still heavily favours “lift”, in Australia you’ll find both words used interchangeably. But if your story is in the US or UK, you’ll know which to use.

Q: Just one final semi-related question. Where does the word “escalator” come from? I’m assuming it’s from things that “escalate”?

A: No, it’s actually NOT. Remember that Otis guy? Well his elevator company developed one of the first moving staircases and in 1900, they named their version the “escalator”. The word was a portmanteau of “escalade” and “elevator”.

Q: Escalade??

A: It’s a word that’s been around since the 1500s – the name of the technique of using ladders to scale the walls of a fortified place.

Q: Oh wow, okay. So, from siege warfare to suburban shopping malls. 

A: Exactly. By the way, the verb “escalate” came FROM this product name – first appearing in 1922 solely as a verb meaning to ride on an escalator! It wouldn’t be until the early 1960s that it became commonly used figuratively to mean “raise” – during nuclear tensions in the Cold War. For example, an “escalation in the situation in Cuba” etc.

Q: Fascinating. This has definitely been an uplifting experience.

A: It’s certainly had its ups and downs!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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