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The American History Podcast

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The Word We’d Been Waiting For

Americans suffered from gridlock long before there was a name for it. Delivery trucks jamming W 37th Street in New York City, 1945. Credit: Library of Congress.

Americans suffered from gridlock long before there was a name for it. Delivery trucks jamming W 37th Street in New York City, 1945. Credit: Library of Congress.

Today, gridlock is a focal point in public discussions. Partisan gridlock makes Congress ineffective, and nations must overcome years of gridlock to come to new agreements in international negotiations. Even Doctor Who has had to battle gridlock.

But what most people don’t know despite all this gridlock is that the term itself originated just a few decades ago. It’s the new kid on the block, as far as words go.

Even Sam Schwartz, the word’s inventor, is a little shocked at how quickly it took hold.

“Every time I hear the President of the United States use the word gridlock, a little chill comes over me saying if I didn’t utter that word, he wouldn’t be uttering that word.”

In 1971, Schwartz was working with the city of New York, trying to figure out a solution to the city’s infamous traffic problems. As he and his coworkers looked through different changes they could make to try to improve traffic flow, they came across something interesting: some of these changes led to isolated traffic problems that compounded and compounded until whole sections of the city’s grid system would stall.

The way it worked, Schwartz says, is that traffic backed up along one street far enough to block another intersection. Traffic on that street, now unable to move, would block another intersection, which would block another, and another intersection. What resulted was a sort of traffic paradox.

“If you go all the way around the block, you’ll end up finding the first person ended up blocking himself.”

So, Schwartz began writing a program to prevent, as he called it, “grid-lock”.

“We didn’t even think it was a word. And we never even wrote it down. We just used it as jargon.”

The term remained jargon until 1980, when New York’s public transit workers threatened a strike and Schwartz, still working for the city, wrote a warning to the mayor. People already knew that the strike would mean more drivers on the road, many of whom didn’t usually drive. But what Schwartz knew from his years of experience was that this uptick in traffic could lead to gridlock that would make the city’s traffic go from bad to nightmarish.

When the media caught wind of his warning and his word, they had a field day. Said Schwartz,

“Reporters went wild with the word… The city is afraid of this thing called gridlock.Within days, William Safire called me for his “On Language” column in the New York Times. And then I was besieged by dictionaries and encyclopedias as to where this word came from.”

The New York transit workers’ strike Schwartz warned of lasted only ten days, but the word has survived and thrived in the decades since. Listen to our entire episode on gridlock to learn more about the impact gridlock has had on American history.