Jargonbuster gets to grips with 'traction'

The World Today Published 31 August 2012 Updated 7 December 2018 1 minute READ

The word traction conjures up various images – a big steam engine, or a leg in plaster, in the air, with pulleys. But these days traction can be applied to just about any human activity, the more amorphous the better. Writing of the possibility that Tony Blair might return in Churchillian style, to rescue the country, a commentator wrote in The Independent: ‘One can see how the fantasy might gain traction.’ A pleasant dream achieving sufficient friction on the surface of the popular imagination to exert a force on it? Or did he mean that the idea might spread?

Once you notice the lazy usage of traction, you see it everywhere. Someone in The Guardian wrote of achieving ‘cultural traction’. If the sins of the London bankers were not complex enough already, another Guardian writer had this to say: ‘So far the Libor scandal has played out mostly under the radar in the US. But now the affair is gaining traction in Washington.’ So it is an airborne scandal, flying low, and then dropping grappling hooks so that it can pull the White House and the Capitol to a new location?

Even the eminent Lord West, the former First Sea Lord, has fallen prey: ‘History is full of examples of the “big lie”, and such distortions, if repeated enough, still gain unwarranted traction today.’

Traction means pulling. Which you sometimes have to do to broken bones as they set. To gain traction means for a wheel or tyre to get a grip on the mud or snow on which it was previously spinning uselessly, so that it can pull the vehicle out of the rut. But when it is applied to abstractions, it is a metaphor that spins uselessly.

Writers who think of using the phrase should get a grip. It has lost all traction on the English language.