If someone says that they’re ‘stuck in traffic,’ what does it mean? In this article, we’ll look at the definition, origin, and examples of this English phrase.
In a nutshell, being ‘stuck in traffic’ means that a person is in a vehicle that can only move very slowly or can’t move forward at all because of the number of vehicles on the road.
To be ‘stuck in traffic’ means that a driver and/or their passengers in a vehicle aren’t moving at all or are only moving very slowly because there are so many other vehicles on the road.
For example, let’s say that you are heading to an important meeting and you’re driving on the highway. All of a sudden, you are moving at a snail’s pace because all of the other cars on the highway are only moving forward at 5 mph. You might call your boss or colleague and tell them you’re ‘stuck in traffic’ to let them know that you will probably be late and it’s out of your control.
To better understand what ‘stuck in traffic’ means, as its definition is fairly straightforward, let’s explore the meaning of the two primary words in the phrase: ‘stuck’ and ‘traffic.’
The word ‘stuck’ is the past tense and past participle of the word ‘stick.’ ‘Stick’ has many different definitions, but the one that is relevant to the phrase ‘stuck in traffic’ is:
“Unable to move or be moved or fiixed in a particular position."
This means that when someone is ‘stuck in traffic,’ it means that they are ‘fixed in a particular position in traffic’ or ‘unable to move or be moved in traffic.’
‘Traffic’ has several definitions, the most relevant of which is:
“Vehicles moving on a public highway or road.”
If you are driving somewhere and there are so many other cars on the road that your ability to move at a normal speed is impacted, you might say that there is ‘heavy traffic.’ If you are so impeded in your forward movements that you’re going to be late for your engagement, you could say you’re ‘stuck in traffic.’
On the other hand, if you’re driving down the highway and there aren’t many cars on the road, you could say that the ‘traffic is light’ or the ‘traffic isn’t bad’ today.
Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that the phrase ‘stuck in traffic’ first started showing up in the early 1900s and became increasingly common after World War II. Usage increased dramatically after 1980.
The phrase ‘traffic jam’ started gaining regular usage around 1918 and has increased fairly steadily since.
Understanding where the phrase ‘stuck in traffic’ comes from has to do with the etymology of both ‘stuck’ and ‘traffic.’ Let’s take a look at each one.
The verb ‘stick’ meaning ‘to pierce, stab, transfix, goad’ as well as ‘stay fixed, remain embedded, be fastened’ comes from the old English word stician. This comes from the Proto-Germanic stik- as well as related Old Frisian, Old High German, German, Greek, and other words.
The word ‘stuck’ as in “unable to go any farther,” dates back to about 1885.
The word ‘traffic’ meaning “trade, commerce,” comes from around 1500 and stems from even older words such as the Italian traffico and the French trafique.
The meaning of the word “people and vehicles coming and going” wasn’t recorded until 1825. In 1895, the term ‘traffic block’ was used to describe what would later be known as a ‘traffic jam,’ a phrase that was first used in 1908.
How would you use the phrase ‘stuck in traffic’ in a sentence? Let’s look at some examples.
Do you want to learn more English idioms and phrases to expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out the rest of our idioms articles!