1. Acoustic as in non-electric (like a guitar). There are several memes out there about stairs just being an acoustic escalator.

  2. It’s “Unplugged”, as the ?90s series of acoustic albums by normally noisy electrified bands was called. Like a guitar, an unplugged escalator is quieter than an electric one, and you’re also more likely to hear the breathing of the person using it.

  3. When I was about three or four years old, I discovered a big red “OFF” button on an escalator. I pushed it, and was amazed to find that it actually worked. Unfortunately, I noticed only too late that there was not a big green “ON” button right next to it. Ooops. I got a mild scolding from my parents, but we managed to leave before anyone from the department store showed up.

  4. The linguist’s son in me (OK, that’s just me, I guess) causes me to note that “acoustic guitar” is a back-formation: until there were electric guitars, those were just “guitars”. Same with things like “manual transmission”, “manual [car] windows”, “black and white TV”; there are of course many, many more. Kinda fun.

    Watching a show last week taking place in 1923, someone referred to people moving to California “to work in silent pictures”. I pointed out to my wife that at that point, those were just “movies” (or maybe “moving pictures”)–there were no talkies yet! (OK, talkies actually did start in 1923, but nobody was making the distinction yet.)

  5. I had a totally different take that would make my ears bleed. The escalator goes up as would the volume. The unplugged explanation makes more sense, though I’ll be thinking “turn it up to 11” every time I step on one.

  6. Before I read the GoComics comments, it never would have occurred to me to compare escalators to guitars, so this was a CIDU.

  7. One exception to the “silent movies” / “acoustic guitar” / “manual transmission” trend is “radio” when television came along. Although television was broadcast over radio waves, it was just “television,” not “radio,” except facetiously “radio with pictures.” So “radio” didn’t have to become “invisible radio” or whatever. But now that we have “internet radio” maybe we’ll have to call radio-wave radio “radio radio.”

    Another back-formation is “pipe organ” but I don’t know whether it dates from the 19th century when reed organs came along or the 20th century when electric organs came along.

  8. MiB, absolutely there is now “terrestrial radio”. I think the contrast is not so much “internet radio” (Though that could play a part in it) as much as “satellite radio”.

  9. Further to MiB, if you know that a harmonica is sometimes called a “mouth organ” you will understand how some of my family came to say “hand organ” for the electric organs you could find in some suburban living rooms.

    (Another confounding factor could be that we were also thinking of “Hammond organ” because of the iconic brand. This would probably be involved in “Did you hear, the Sugarmans are getting a hand organ!”)

  10. And while some may object to (or just be amused by) retronyms when in context they would be anachronistic errors, I have also seen them disparaged as redundant by those who like to disparage redundancy 🙂 Of course, a measure of disambiguation underlying their creation in the first place must in practice imply a redundancy as well.

    There is something messy going on with errors and corrections about “slash”, “backslash”, and “forward slash”. You can hear (well educated) people who when reading aloud a URL or web address, will say “backslash” for the (forward) slash punctuation character separating different components. Then there are others who say “forward slash” to firmly avoid that error. And then there are tech nerds who object to “forward slash” because (1) the character is “officially” just called “slash” and (2) using the “forward” is like admitting that “slash” might be ambiguous or underdetermined — or to put it in a nasty way, it is “catering to ignorance”. For myself, I’m equally happy to hear “forward slash” or just “slash”.

  11. I can’t remember what it was, but I fairly recently saw something where they referred to the First World War, but this was before WWII…

  12. Re: “Escalator are the ultimate example of designed to have a graceful failure mode.”

    Except there have been numerous times where escalators have spectacularly failed, and people have gotten very hurt.

    There is a song and album by the title of “The Acoustic Motorbike” by Irish singer-songwriter Luka Bloom in 1992. The song is about cycling through Ireland.

    In regards to the term “pipe organ”, I can find references to the term in publications dating back to the 1870s, so it’s been around.

    Finally, the phrase “talking pictures” was found in a book from 1919. Though still a back-formation, the term goes back further than one might think (along with the phrase “black-and-white pictures”).


  13. In my second year of college I went to the yearbook convention which was being held here in Manhattan along with others from the yearbook. I had not been in NYC in general much on my own – and family went in together very occasionally .

    Since it was near where we were we all went to the 34th Street Macys. I saw something there which I must have seen before as a young child (as according to my mom – my dad knew the man who ran the electric trains display at Christmas and one time I got to run them (which I find hard to believe) so I would have ridden on the escalators. They had – and I think still do – the original wooden slat escalator steps! This is the to the top floor in the store. Since I am afraid of escalators in general – that was REALLY scary to me.

    Playboy club that night had normal escalators and was more fun.

  14. There was an old Encyclopedia Brown mystery where Bugs Meany had acquired an authentic Civil War-era artifact (a sword, I think), with a label on it touting it as having been awarded right after the “First Battle of Bull Run”. Encyclopedia pointed out that before the Second Battle of Bull Run no one would have called it the “First Battle”.

  15. Except there have been numerous times where escalators have spectacularly failed, and people have gotten very hurt.

    Not that I’m doubting you, but I am just really curious what those would look like. Right now all I’ve got is a Simpsons like gratuitous crash and explosion bursting into flames…

  16. @ Powers – Not to mention that if the sword really did belong to Stonewall Jackson, it would have been labeled “Battle of Manassas” (the Confederate army named battles after towns, and not rivers, as was the Union custom). I’m sure that I read the book in elementary school, but it was about 50 years ago.

  17. And federal judge and first Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was named for the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, not for the geographic feature directly.

  18. What was the book or play or whatever where the leader giving the army a pep talk before going into battle told them that this wasn’t just any battle but was in fact the first battle of the Hundred Year’s War?

  19. Trivia: I grew up near Pittsfield Massachusetts and sometimes went shopping at England Brothers, the big department store. The first escalator in the United States was installed in that store, but that was more than 50 years or so before I was shopping there.

  20. Kilby: England Brothers modernized their escalators from time to time. But as late as the 1970’s, a subway stop in Boston had the old fashioned wooden slats just like Calvin’s dad describes, and they sloped downward so that it was only the friction of the soles of your shoes that kept you from sliding all the way back down to the bottom.

  21. larK — About that “First World War” label, could that have been in the late thirties, when lots of people figured another big war was coming soon?

  22. Ed: I don’t recall where it was; I think it was someone referring to like their father or something in 1920s England, and explaining his debility as “he was wounded in the First World War “.

  23. And now I’ve started noticing odd metaphorical uses of “acoustic” all over the place.

    Is it consistently just an opposite of “electric”? But that wasn’t exactly what was going on with the escalator.

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