Lift Trappings: a locally-emergent collocation?

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One of the benefits of travel is exposure to new ways of expressing things. Sometimes it's different metaphors — the French connect parallel-parking slots and appointment times with battlements, for example — but often it's just apparently-arbitrary differences in word choices.

On Thursday and Friday I was in London, and was therefore reminded of familiar trans-Atlantic vocabulary differences like lift vs. elevator. But on this visit, I noticed a collocational difference — perhaps an emergent one — that I hadn't seen before. One of the elevators that I rode in had a sign on the wall offering advice about what to do in case of a "lift trapping incident".

I was pretty sure that American elevators would chose a different process- or result-nominalization for the verb trap, and would not tell me how to deal with "elevator trapping", but rather with "elevator entrapment".

And a quick check of the internet tends to confirm this. There are certain plenty of American "Elevator Entrapment" pages, such a blog post providing "In Case of Elevator Entrapment" signage, and official "Elevator Entrapment Policies" at the University of Chicago, at Stanford, at Penn State,  etc. [My own university appears not to have a policy, at least not under that name, though elevator entrapment certainly occurs there, and in fact Penn may be the only place in the world where there's an (unofficial) holiday commemorating an elevator entrapment incident ("Happy Gerald Ford Trapped In An Elevator Day!", The Daily Pennsylvanian, 9/19/2012).]

And there's a fair amount of other evidence on the web for British use of "Lift Trapping(s)", e.g. the "Safe Working Procedure — Lift Trappings" from Southhampton:

In order to comply with legislation and fulfil statutory responsibility, the Council must make sure that:

  • Emergency procedures are in place for the recovery of person(s) trapped in lifts or hoists.
  • Lift trappings are recorded.
  • Failure to recover person(s) trapped in lifts within the scope of the service level agreement are reported in accordance with the Safe Working Procedure (SWP) for Accident/Incident reporting and Investigation.
  • Emergency Services are not called out unless there is a genuine emergency as defined by this procedure.

Or this City of London page for the Barbican Estates, telling us that

The lift maintenance and repair services are undertaken by a specialist contractor who provides a response to lift trappings and lift failures

There are relatively few hits for "elevator trappings", and some of them are from Canada, or are in informal descriptions whose authors' backgrounds are unclear. On the other hand, there are quite a few "lift entrapments" (e.g. "Lift Entrapment" procedures at HKUST).

Summing it all up — using Google's notoriously unreliable estimated result counts — it's clear that entrapment is dominant, even for those who use lift rather than elevator. But trapping holds almost a third of the lift-dialect mindshare:

entrapments trappings % "trappings"
elevator  1660  28  1.7%
lift  417  186  30.8%

This situation is consistent with several histories — maybe "lift trappings" is emerging in the UK, or maybe it's a residue of a once-dominant collocation. Or the situation might be historically stable. Unfortunately, none of the options are common enough to register in the Google Books ngram counts.



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 21, 2015 @ 10:27 am

    I think that if I were writing a sign to be read mostly by people about to panic, I'd use "stuck" instead of any form of "trap". "What to do if you're stuck in an elevator". If I had to nominalize, I wouldn't use "entrapment", because I associate it so strongly with other meanings. Maybe "Incidents of people getting stuck in elevators must be reported."

    For a cis-Atlantic collocational difference, I think I "take" elevators rather than "riding" them. (Incidentally, the sentence beginning "One of the elevators" is missing an "I".)

  2. ahkow said,

    June 21, 2015 @ 10:55 am

    Is there also a Latinate/Germanic "harmony" effect here? As in, "elevator" is Latinate and so preferentially modifies a head noun that has Latinate morphology ("en-ment"); "lift" is Germanic and so has no such preference or prefers a head noun with Germanic morphology ("-ing").

  3. Sarah said,

    June 21, 2015 @ 10:56 am

    Jerry, I guess you're using cis- as a prefix to mean the opposite of trans- Atlantic? "Cis-Atlantic collocational difference" doesn't quite make sense to me. Is that terminology I'm unfamiliar with?

    More on topic, as a mostly American English speaker now living in London, "lift trappings" makes perfect sense in context, but when I just read the headline, I thought it might be referring to chairs or mirrors that are sometimes in lifts!

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 21, 2015 @ 11:51 am

    Speaking of trans-Atlantic vocabulary differences, "Lift trappings are recorded" seems ambiguous to me. Presumably they mean some sort of written record or incident log. But if you search YouTube for "trapped in elevator", you'll find plenty of the other kind of recording.

  5. Q. Pheevr said,

    June 21, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

    Hmm. Both "lift trapping" and "elevator entrapment" sound kind of stilted and jargonish to me.

    [(myl) Of course — we're talking about signage. "Stilted and jargonish" is a stylistic requirement.]

    I'm picturing coureurs de bois laying snares either for or in elevators, and shady cops inveigling otherwise innocent people to commit lift-related crimes.

    Also, here's one of my favourite examples of bilingual signage.

  6. John Walden said,

    June 21, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

    So British English and American English are different on many levels?

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    June 21, 2015 @ 2:51 pm

    I'm not (much of) an artist, but a standard label here is "lift to all floors". I have images of such a sign, with a finger hovering over " pelvic", "forest" "ocean", etc.


  8. Viseguy said,

    June 21, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

    When I saw the title of this post, the first thing that popped into my mind was "skiing accessories".

  9. AntC said,

    June 21, 2015 @ 7:59 pm

    Trappings of the high life?

  10. Vassili said,

    June 21, 2015 @ 9:50 pm

    Lift trappings, such as handsome lift boy, gold-plated mirrors on the ceiling and languagelog quote of the day in the gilded frame above the buttons…

  11. Sandy Nicholson said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 3:26 am

    Stuck vs trapped: like Jerry Friedman, I agree that the former would be more natural (and perhaps ‘lift trappings’ is just an instance of nerdview). In fact, the headline made me think at first of incidents where people had body parts or clothing trapped in lift machinery – far worse than just being stuck inside a lift. Then again, ‘lift trapping incidents’ does perhaps read slightly better than ‘getting-stuck-in-the-lift incidents’.

    Trapping vs entrapment: as a BrE speaker, I first came across the latter as the title of a 1999 film starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones (I can’t remember anything about the film, though – I may not even have watched it). So I learned about the US legal term from that. It had never occurred to me that it (or the verb entrap) might also have a life outside legalese.

  12. Andrew Bay said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 8:09 am

    I am picturing a hunter with a snare trap or the like waiting patiently for the unwitting elevator. Beaver trappings occur not by the beaver, but by a trap getting a beaver. Although, I suppose the opposite can be said when "snare trapping" is done by a snare trap.

    Somewhere, there is a "In Soviet Russia," joke waiting to be made.

  13. BZ said,

    June 22, 2015 @ 10:33 am

    I'm in the US and neither "trappings" nor "entrapment" sound right to me at all. I've only heard of "entrapment" in the legal sense and "trappings" in the "characteristics of something" sense. "Trapping" only makes sense as a verb form to me, a transitive one at that.

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