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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1980’s | enginese | “traffic jam,” “logjam,” “deadlock,” “paralysis”)

I found a handful of doubtful cases in Google Books, but nothing that disproved the reigning explanation of the origin of “gridlock.” The story goes that two traffic engineers, Sam Schwartz and his partner Roy Cottam, invented a word for a nightmarish traffic jam — Manhattan’s street grid rendered completely impassable due to cars blocking every intersection for blocks around. (Maybe it should have been called “gridblock.”) New York has a transit strike every so often, and we had a big one in 1980. No subways and buses means more cars on the same streets means impossible traffic all over Midtown. Schwartz by that time was a city employee, and the word started to turn up regularly in the New York Times. (William Safire was an early partisan, using the word several times in his language column between 1980 and 1982; one lexicographer was watching it closely even in 1981.) It was thoroughly established within a few years. In the early days, it was used most often to talk about movement of motorized vehicles, but the word was used in discussions of politics as early as 1980, and quickly developed secondary senses in the realms of legislation (parties can’t agree on anything) and the judicial system (shortage of judges preventing cases from being resolved quickly). It can still be used to talk about traffic, but that sounds a little prosaic, now that the term is heard far more often in political discourse. Today, “gridlock” takes flight only when used to bash one’s political opponents as obstructionists, do-nothings, and filibusterers.

Schwartz did well by the coinage, anyway: he went on to write the wonderful “Gridlock Sam” traffic advice column for the New York Daily News –- one of the few bright spots of the News in the mid-1990’s, as I recall –- and he remains a respected commentator on traffic and transportation. That’s a full-time job in New York, and few are better at it.

The three uses mentioned above (traffic, politics, courts) constitute a relatively small number, considering how often the word appears. It has retained a narrow range with little spread into new applications. No one talks about “emotional gridlock,” or “office gridlock.” When it comes to traffic, the word denotes immobility due to overuse of the roads. But in political use — much more common these days — the immobility isn’t generally due to an oversupply of legislative proposals or debates; it’s more likely to arise from throwing sand in the gears. Classic gridlock isn’t willed. It just happens, because there’s nowhere for all the cars to go. But partisan gridlock is often the deliberate result of the efforts of a small group. There is a broadening of definition here, but not of application; the use of the word in politics caught on early and fast and now is omnipresent.

Legislative gridlock is always deplored, and no one ever speaks up for it. But gridlock is good. When the two parties disagree on how to achieve the shared goal of screwing most of the population, gridlock can keep things from getting worse too fast. It’s surprising how often American voters wind up with divided legislatures, or a partisan divide between the legislature and the executive. I think that’s partly because we understand instinctively that government can do a lot of damage in a hurry if the people don’t find ways to apply the brakes. (Witness the shitstorm of changes in North Carolina this year, when both houses of the legislature and the governor are all of the same party for the first time since Reconstruction.) Like pork-barrel spending, gridlock may not be so bad. The ruthlessly efficient government is the most dangerous because it is most likely to disregard the will of the people. Democratic governments need to slow down, hear from a lot of different sides, and throw bribes at voters to stay in power. That is one of the great premises of our political system: making it difficult to pass (or change) laws, because so many competing interests must be placated. Gridlock caused by partisan differences and failure to compromise is an important check on the legislature.

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