In Word Through The Times, we trace how one word or phrase has changed throughout the history of the newspaper.
In 1916, The New York Times wrote that “thousands of people and a bewildering array of motor and horse-drawn vehicles jammed themselves into almost inextricable confusion” in New York City. Manhattan, which is laid out on a grid system established in 1811, had a traffic problem.
About 70 years later, conditions had improved — but not enough. In 1988, The Times Magazine published an article, “National Gridlock,” that stated that “trapped motorists have turned cities and freeway systems into war zones.” While stuck in traffic in Manhattan, the article’s author, James Gleick, interviewed the man who had been trying to fix New York’s traffic problem for nearly two decades. “I have a hostage in the passenger seat, New York City’s czar and guru of traffic, Samuel I. Schwartz,” Mr. Gleick wrote. In the article, Mr. Schwartz was quoted as saying, “We’re flirting with gridlock every day.”
Mr. Gleick wrote that “gridlock” was a “devilish condition” that occurred “when traffic jams up all the way around a city block and becomes a circular cascade of congestion, so that every car, paradoxical though it sounds, is actually blocking itself, the snake biting its own tail.”
In 1971, Mr. Schwartz, a Brooklyn native, got a job studying congestion patterns as a junior engineer at what is now the city’s Department of Transportation. Though the term “grid lock” was already being used in the department, it didn’t gain wide recognition until the 1980 New York City transit strike. Mr. Schwartz and his colleagues had created a contingency plan for the strike and called it the “Grid-lock Prevention Plan”; it went into effect about a week into the strike.
Once the press learned of it, the word was fused together and “took off like crazy,” Mr. Schwartz said in a recent interview with The Times. “Gridlock” first appeared in The Times on the month of the strike in the “On Language” column. The author, William Safire, wrote, “Gridlock is a fine neologism for the automobile’s armageddon, and I am pleased to pass this on to the news department only three weeks or so past the deadline.”
In 1981, The Times wrote about a plea from the mayor’s office that urged motorists to “Fight Gridlock! Don’t Block the Box!” The city introduced “antigridlock boxes” that kept traffic out of intersections to prevent backup. In another article that year, a columnist wrote in Metropolitan Diary that readers were hearing the term used to describe “almost any overcrowded situation,” such as a “‘human gridlock’ in Central Park during the Simon and Garfunkel concert.”
Today, gridlock can be used to describe “any obstructed condition or impasse,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. The Times has written about political gridlock, when the president belongs to one party while the other controls at least one house of Congress; legislative gridlock, or stalemate in Congress; and even stroller gridlock at Walt Disney World.
For “Gridlock Sam,” as Mr. Schwartz now calls himself on social media, the word holds personal significance. “Every time a president of the United States uses the word gridlock, I get a little chill down my spine,” he said. “If I didn’t utter this word during the 1980 transit strike, if I didn’t write this down, the president would have had to find another word for this.”
Subscribers can browse the complete Times archives through 2002 here.