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shameless pleading

Gridlock

Car 54, fuhgeddaboudit.

Dear Word Detective:  I read an article on the internet which claims that the phrase “gridlock” originated in Manhattan, where street intersections were painted with a hatch pattern and people stopping in this “grid” caused traffic jams.  Is this accurate or is there more to the history of this word ? — Aswin Rajappa.

There’s a bit more to it. The crosshatch pattern you’re thinking of, found in some high-traffic intersections in midtown Manhattan, dates back to 1984, when New York City borrowed the idea from London. New York City added the warning “Don’t Block the Box!” on signs and decreed a hefty fine for drivers “caught in the box” (thus blocking traffic) when the light changes.

The “grid” in “gridlock” actually refers to the way streets are laid out in central Manhattan, an arrangement that dates back to 1811. That was when the New York State Legislature decided that Manhattan north of 14th street, unlike many other cities, should be laid out in an orderly grid design in which avenues (running North-South) met numbered streets at perfect right angles. Most of the island was still farmland then; only lower Manhattan was densely occupied, and even in the 1800s the chaotic jumble of its streets led to a famous daily snarl at Broadway and Fulton Street.

“Grid” in this sense of an arrangement of parallel lines is a back-formation, a simplified form, of “gridiron,” the familiar cooking setup found in backyard barbecue grills. The word “gridiron” itself dates back to the 14th century, first appearing as “gredire,” closely related to “griddle.” The “ire” became “iron” apparently by association with other cooking implements. Today “gridiron” is best known as a sportscaster’s term for American football fields (from the marking lines), but “grid” alone has expanded to mean any interconnected self-contained system, such as the electrical grid that supplies power to a region.

A perfectly regular grid is a very efficient arrangement of streets, and can often shorten travel times in a city. Unfortunately, the more cars (e.g., in rush hour), the higher likelihood of “gridlock,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “A state of severe road congestion arising when continuous queues of vehicles block an entire network of intersecting streets, bringing traffic in all directions to a complete standstill.” The term “gridlock” was, fittingly, coined in the New York City Department of Transportation in the 1970s by chief traffic engineer Sam Schwartz, although it didn’t make its debut in newspapers until the 1980s.

As is often the case when a technical term catches the public attention, “gridlock” almost immediately came into play as a metaphor. Today “gridlock” is the go-to buzzword for any apparently immovable impediment to progress, especially if an inability to “play well with others” is seen as the cause. Thus TV pundits drone on for hours about “legislative gridlock” while   frustrated business owners complain of “regulatory  gridlock.” The rest of us can either grin and bear it or get out and walk.

1 comment to Gridlock

  • J. Pastor

    You New Yorkers are aware, are you not, that 1811 isn’t even close to the first time a city in what would eventually become the US was laid out in a grid. That honor would go to Philadelphia: “Penn first advertised the layout of his town in Thomas Holme’s Portraiture of the City of Philadelphia, published in 1683. As one can see, Penn designed the city as a rectangular gridiron. Broad and High streets cross each other at ‘centre square’ and divide the city into four quadrants.” [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/penn/pnplan.html]

    1683 predates 1811 by, let’s see, over a century.

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