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used with other nouns to describe the unexpected and often unwanted effects of a particular situation or trend
'Parkinson also reportedly said Australians could expect to be taxed more …, and that by next year the average earner was likely find themselves in the second-highest tax bracket because of the current rate of bracket creep.'The Guardian 22nd August 2014
'Ad Creep Hits the Water With Floating Billboards on Lakes … Only an ad executive would look out on Lake Washington in Seattle and realize, as he drove away, that "there were no billboards". And then decide to put 14-foot-tall inflatable placards out on the water.'Adweek 21st May 2012
Media coverage of the 2014 Australian budget included repeated references to a phenomenon known as bracket creep – a situation in which inflation pushes average incomes into higher tax brackets. Though bracket creep had unfortunate consequences for Australian pockets and purchasing power, the term itself highlights an interesting example of word formation which is yet to be widely acknowledged in mainstream dictionaries.
the word creep … often seems to convey the idea of unexpected, often negative developments which can spiral out of control
The word creep conventionally conjures up images of a person moving around very quietly for fear of disturbing others or, in its noun use, of an individual who's annoyingly keen to impress someone in authority. But there's an alternative use of creep which has been around for some time now, quietly gaining momentum in a wide range of contexts. The second citation above gives a further example of this in the expression ad creep, which has been used for several years to describe the increased tendency for advertising to pop up in unconventional spaces – from the walls of public conveniences to pieces of fruit. A similar concept underpins the term Christmas creep, which will immediately make sense to you if you've ever rolled your eyes at the appearance of Christmas cards and other glittery paraphernalia appearing in the shops as early as August or September! Moving over to the environmental domain, it's possible in recent times that you might have come across the expression season creep, which refers to the growing tendency for seasons to be milder and not change as abruptly or regularly as they once did – a situation thought to be caused by global warming.
The existence of these wide-ranging examples would seem to suggest then that, in the early 21st century, the word creep has taken on a new life as a highly productive combining form. Its precise meaning is tricky to pin down, since it's very closely linked to the word it combines with, but it often seems to convey the idea of unexpected, often negative developments which can spiral out of control.
The word creep's journey into productive use as a combining form was kicked off by the expression mission creep, first used in 1993 in the context of the United Nations peacekeeping mission during the Somali Civil War. Though initially applied exclusively in military contexts, mission creep gradually became used in a variety of other fields and took on a more generic meaning as outlined above, though many dictionaries still include military references when defining the term.
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This article was first published on 14th October 2014.