For example, when a young troubled child progresses from torturing insects with a magnifying glass to killing small mammals, or when a stalker changes their behavior from just following someone around to breaking into their house, etc.

It usually involves the new behavior being more risky for the assailant, more harmful for the victim, and more illegal/immoral.

Edit: I know escalate fits the definition, but I think there's another word that has a criminal/immoral connotation that I am looking for. Some other synonyms to the word I'm looking for might be spiral (downward), descend, or intensify.

By request, some sentences for you to fill in the blank:

John used to just stare creepily at his classmate, Jane, all throughout English 101 but today his behavior _______ and he gave into the urge to follow her back to her dormitory after class.

  • 6
    Well, that escalated quickly!
    – NVZ
    Aug 24, 2016 at 17:34
  • He went from being a juvenile to a criminal, or a misdemeanor to a felony.
    – Othya
    Aug 24, 2016 at 17:46
  • 2
    I noticed that you used the word escalates in the title. What quality are you looking for that escalate doesn't capture?
    – Lawrence
    Aug 25, 2016 at 4:02
  • A sentence with a blank where the word you want would fit might help. The problem with the request as it stands is that you might want a word for the process ('escalation') or a word for a significantly intensified stage in the process ('psychotic break').
    – JEL
    Aug 25, 2016 at 4:26

6 Answers 6


The closest match to the meaning you suggested, that also fits with the sentence you supplied, is the verb

degenerate, v.
1. intr. To lose, or become deficient in, the qualities proper to the race or kind; to fall away from ancestral virtue or excellence; hence (more generally), to decline in character or qualities, become of a lower type.

["degenerate, v.". OED Online. June 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/49056 (accessed August 26, 2016). Emphasis in definition mine.]

In your sentence, 'degenerated' works well:

John used to just stare creepily at his classmate, Jane, all throughout English 101 but today his behavior degenerated and he gave in to the urge to follow her back to her dormitory after class.

Another word that works in your sentence, but doesn't seem to match the nuances of meaning you supplied as well as 'degenerated' does, is 'deteriorated':

deteriorate, v.
2. intr. To grow worse in character; to become lowered or impaired in quality or value; to degenerate.

["deteriorate, v.". OED Online. June 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/51216?rskey=m1OmcN&result=2&isAdvanced=false (accessed August 26, 2016).]

Notice that my second suggestion is defined in terms of the first. The first more strongly suggests volitional moral or criminal degradation ("the qualities proper to the race or kind") than the second.



escalate into something

to intensify into something; to increase gradually into something.

"This argument is going to escalate into something serious very soon."
"These cases of the flu could escalate into a real epidemic."

escalate something into something

to cause something to intensify.

"He escalated the argument into a vicious fight."
"The dictator tried to escalate the disagreement into a cause for war."

See related meme: "That escalated quickly!"

  • 1
    Escalate seems the usual term in criminology, e.g. A Longitudinal Study of Escalation in Crime Seriousness. And "There is a widely held belief that individuals who engage in serious crime at an early age are likely to continue their offensivity; moreover, the gravity of their ensuing behavior may escalate." (Source)
    – Stuart F
    Sep 20, 2022 at 11:58

He is taking his bad behavior (or criminality) to another level.


Further improve or develop something that is already successful

"five years after founding my software company, I’m ready to take it to the next level"

  • +1 This one sounds the most familiar to me, having watched a number of crime dramas in my life :^)
    – Kanga_Roo
    Aug 24, 2016 at 17:50

In some Common Law jurisdictions a petty criminal may be charged with any number of different offences which are collectively labeled a misdemeanor, but those criminals who commit more serious crimes are charged with offences that are collectively labeled a felony. Such a person may be described as a felon. An alternative would be the word recidivist, one who is a repeat offender and, in my opinion, covers the quantitative aspect of the OP but not necessarily the qualitative aspect of a person's burgeoning criminal behavior.

  • "...or soon to be criminal..." That part of the OP may be covered by the words delinquent and miscreant. Aug 24, 2016 at 17:56

Not single words, but probably relevant idioms.

Fat hit the fireTFD

Fig. A situation that suddenly becomes frantic and unpleasant. (Typically: suddenly ~; then ~; when ~.)

"Things were looking bad in the stock market, then the fat hit the fire and I lost everything."

Go from bad to worseTFD

To progress from a bad situation to one that is worse.

"Things went from bad to worse in a matter of days."
"I'm afraid that things are going from bad to worse."

Kick it up a notchOnline Slang Dictionary

verb phrase To increase the intensity of something.

  • 3
    Your comment's verb escalate could be the best answer. Aug 24, 2016 at 17:58

The situation you describe seems to imply there, especially from your example sentence, is some deeper, inner motivation to commit crimes. Therefore, you could say

John used to just stare creepily at his classmate, Jane, all throughout English 101 but today his [implied inner malady] manifested, and he gave into the urge to follow her back to her dormitory after class.

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