Spike U Like?

Keeping out of the Hive Mind is an endless struggle. The Hive evolves, constantly throwing out toxic tentacles of glottic grotesqueness to enwrap and entwine the unwary mind. However, “in terms of” is an old and familiar tentacle. It’s easy to spot and avoid. New tentacles can be trickier, particularly when they come in cosy colloquial guise, like this:

Perrine’s brother is one of 36 people killed in Baltimore so far this month, already the highest homicide count for May since 1999. But while homicides are spiking, arrests have plunged more than 50 percent compared to last year. […]

Baltimore was seeing a slight rise in homicides this year even before Gray’s death April 19. But the 36 homicides so far in May is a major spike, after 22 in April, 15 in March, 13 in February and 23 in January.

Non-fatal shootings are spiking as well. So far in May there have been 91 — 58 of them in the Western District. […] Rawlings-Blake said her office is “examining” the relationship between the homicide spike and the dwindling arrest rate. – Baltimore residents fearful amid rash of homicides, The Washington Times, 28/5/2015.

“Spike” is a metaphor drawn from the behaviour of a line on a graph. When a variable rises sharply, reaches a brief maximum, and then falls sharply, it looks like an inverted V. A spike, in other words:

A spike

A spike

Not a spike

Not a spike


A sharp rise cannot be a spike on its own. It has to be followed immediately or almost immediately by a sharp fall. The rise and fall have to be more or less balanced. That’s why it’s nonsensical to say “homicides are spiking”. The rise in murders might level off and establish a new average. Or the murder rate might return slowly to the old level. You can’t announce a spike while a variable is still rising, so every time “spike” is used as a verb or a noun in the article quoted above, it’s being used incorrectly.

But the same article supplies a word that is correct:

At a news conference Wednesday, Rawlings-Blake said there were “a lot of reasons why we’re having a surge in violence.”

A surge can be identified while it is happening. Violence in Baltimore is surging or rocketing or shooting up or rising sharply. It is not “spiking”. But why is this simple metaphor being misused? I think it’s because “spike” conveys a sense of urgency and excitement. It gives journalists and other members of the hive-mind a buzz. They like the connotation, so they forget about the denotation.