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creep

noun combining form

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.

And yet more kinds of 'creep' exist too, such as feature creep – a term currently used in software development to describe the tendency to add more and more features to a product in an attempt to keep up with competitors (but in doing so actually producing something less efficient). On a similar theme, there's also the more generic function creep – when an item or procedure designed for a specific purpose ends up serving another purpose for which it wasn't intended. Back in the financial domain, though thankfully short-lived, there was also once talk of crunch creep – describing the unexpected social and economic consequences of 2008's financial downturn (aka credit crunch). And the most established of all 'creeps', an expression which does seem to have found its way into printed record is mission creep – referring to the expansion of a project or task beyond its original goals, especially where this has negative consequences.

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.

Background – creep

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.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 14th October 2014.

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a woman in middle age who has to juggle caring for teenage children and ageing parents with a career

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