‘Bump on the Road’: Definition, Meaning, and Examples

By Sophia Merton, updated on February 3, 2023

Did you hear someone describe something as a ‘bump on the road’? What does this phrase mean– is it a good thing or a bad thing?

‘Bump on the road’ is an idiom that refers to an obstacle, specifically a relatively minor one. It can also sometimes be used to refer to a very small town without many people or amenities.

What Does 'Bump on the Road' Mean?

‘Bump on the road’ is an alternate form of the more common phrase ‘bump in the road.’

Both of these phrases are idioms that mean “an obstacle or a setback, particularly one that is relatively small or minor.”

There is also a less common idiomatic meaning of ‘bump on the road’ and ‘bump in the road,’ which is “a very small town.”

For example, let’s say your friend is very upset that they didn’t get into their dream school and confides in you about it. You might console them by telling them it’s “just a ‘bump on the road’” and that they will still be able to achieve their goals at a different school.

In terms of the definition that means “a very small town,” let’s look at an example of how you could use this idiom. If you just returned from a road trip and recount your journey to your friend, you might use the phrase ‘bump on the road’ to describe the low-population towns you passed through.

Where Does 'Bump on the Road' Come From?

The definition of the word ‘bump’ meaning “protuberance caused by a blow,” dates back to the 1590s. The use of the word as a verb, meaning “to bulge out,” goes back even further to the 1560s.

The contemporary definition of ‘bump’ that is relevant to the idiom ‘bump on the road’ is “a protuberance on a level surface.”

The word ‘road’ stems from the Middle English word rode, which itself comes from the Old English word rad meaning “journey, riding expedition, hostile incursion.” In the 1590s, the usage of the word meaning “an open way or passage for traveling between two places” emerged.

Though the word ‘road’ might not have been associated with its contemporary meaning until as late as the 16th century, constructed roads had already existed for thousands of years when you look at the history of human civilizations. It is said that the oldest constructed roads that we know of date back to about 4000 B.C. and are located in what were once the Mesopotamian cities of Babylon and Ur (which are located in present-day Iraq.)

One can assume that the notion of there being a literal obstacle or bump in the road is a concept that dates back nearly as far as the existence of roads or trails themselves. Of course, before there were constructed roads, humans would travel using game trails, made improvements to trails by moving big stones and clearing trees, and flattening or widening paths in order to help make it easier for animals and humans to pass through.

All that being said, it is difficult to pin down precisely where and when the phrase ‘bump on the road’ emerged in written and spoken language with its idiomatic meaning.

Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that ‘bump in the road’ has always been more common than ‘bump on the road’ and that both of these phrases became more common in the early 1900s. Both versions of the phrase, though particularly ‘bump in the road,’ increased in usage quite a bit starting around the 1990s.

Examples of 'Bump on the Road' In Sentences

How would you use the idiom ‘bump on the road’ in a sentence? Let’s look at some examples:

  • Jeez Louise, I was expecting some bumps on the road, but I didn’t realize we would run into so many obstacles in the project.”
  • “Theo is always overly dramatic. He’ll respond to a few completely predictable bumps in the road as if he’s up the river without a paddle.”
  • “Many of the things I saw as massive obstacles at the time were really only bumps on the road.”
  • “We ran into more than a few bumps on the road when we were building our humble abode, but the final product made it all worth it.”
  • “He said we shouldn’t get there any later than noon. We should leave an hour early just in case we encounter any bumps on the road.”
  • Everyone knew there would be some bumps on the road as the company came under new ownership, but they didn’t expect mass layoffs of senior employees.”

Now let’s see some example sentences with the intended meaning of ‘bump in the road’ as “a very small town”:

  • “You shouldn’t expect you’ll be able to get gas en route to the city. All you’ll find along the way are a few bumps on the road.”
  • “She was always perplexed by his behavior– he seemed like he came from a completely different planet. It all started to make a lot more sense when she visited his hometown, which wasn’t more than a bump on the road.”
  • “My favorite thing to do in the summer is wandering around the countryside. I’ve always found that the people that live in tiny bumps on the road are incredibly down to earth.”

‘Bump on the Road’ Quotes

The phrase ‘bump on the road’ and its alternative forms are quite common and therefore turn up in quotes by a number of famous individuals. Reading the usage of idioms in quotes can help you understand how these phrases are used in everyday speech and writing.

Here are some examples:

“Being this side of 40 feels like what I should have felt being this side of 25: in my body, in my heart, happy with my life, and OK with whatever bumps in the road present themselves.”

– Jennifer Aniston

“I love life, and I have a lot of gratitude. There have been a lot of bumps in the road, but my sense of humor gets me through a lot.”

– Shelley Morrison

“There will always be rocks in the road ahead of us. They will be stumbling blocks or stepping stones; it all depends on how you use them.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“If we leave the European Union, yes there will be bumps in the road, inevitably, but we will be in a better position to deal with them.”

– Michael Gove

“Who said the road doesn’t have bumps? It can still be traveled.”

– L. Ron Hubbard

“I got into acting in high school mainly because I wasn't doing anything else and started to hit a few bumps in the road. And there was a conference with my parents who said either you find something to do with your time or we will. And so, I don't know why I thought this was the thing to do, but I went to audition for the school play.”

– Matt Letscher

Other Ways to Say 'Bump on the Road'

There are a number of other ways to say ‘bump on the road’ with the intended meaning of “a small setback.” Some examples include:

  • Hindrance
  • Barrier
  • Obstruction
  • Obstacle
  • Impediment
  • Hurdle
  • Stumbling block
  • Roadblock
  • Encumbrance
  • Bone in the throat

If you are using ‘bump on the road’ to mean “very small town,” some other phrases you might use include:

  • One-horse town
  • Backwater
  • Remote place
  • Podunk
  • Tank town
  • Jerkwater town
  • A wide spot in the road
  • Hinterland
  • Boonies
  • The sticks

There are always going to be a few ‘bumps on the road’ when expanding your vocabulary, but you shouldn’t let that discourage you! Be sure to check out our idioms blog to learn more phrases, idioms, adages, and more!

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia Merton is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Sophia received her BA from Vassar College. She is passionate about reading, writing, and the written word. Her goal is to help everyone, whether native English speaker or not, learn how to write and speak with perfect English.

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