Traction

Submitted by Lennie Magida, Senior Manager, Development & Communications, Association of Small Foundations

Tony Responds:
Traction is a word that annoys people not because it’s jargon (I’ll defend it against that charge in a minute) but because it’s overused. The idea of traction, as in “we need to renew this grant because the project is just gaining traction,” gives people in philanthropy an incomparable thrill.

It describes that magic moment when someone’s cherished idea – the sweet, ingenious solution to a public problem that has bedeviled generations of earlier social theorists – starts to show signs of working. Oh, the narcotic effect! But like many narcotics, it has spawned an army of addicts and pushers, and the result isn’t pretty. “Traction” has become an industry cliché, and plenty of people are sick of it.

But I wouldn’t call it jargon. The uses of “traction” I see most often are just metaphorical applications of a very common, simple idea: one thing pulling another, with sufficient force to cause the pulled thing to move. The era of trains and cars has added a related connotation of adhesive friction: the grip of a wheel on track or of a tire on blacktop. As a metaphor, the idea is hardly technical or obscure. The Oxford English Dictionary traces figurative uses of “traction” as far back as the 17th century, and none of them requires any special mastery of engineering or physics to understand. When someone describes wind power as “an old idea finally achieving a long-delayed traction,” surely anyone could guess the meaning: the idea is “pulling” supporters along a path toward some greater goal of renewable energy. What’s not to understand?

Yet not being jargon is a poor defense against a far graver indictment: being tiresome. A really overworked cliché can have the same effect on listeners or readers as a baffling bit of techno-gibberish. Both will cause the audience to tune out – the jargon because it’s incomprehensible, the cliché because it’s sleep-inducing. But clichés have the added disadvantage of producing an effect exactly opposite to the one the user probably intends. Instead of seeming clever, colorful, and original, an overused metaphor can make the speaker sound, at best, like a slave to fashion and, at worst, dull, bland, and tedious. Either way, the message is the loser.

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