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I found the expression “the economy remains stuck in a rut,” in the article titled ”What would Maynard Keynes tell us to do now – and should we listen?” which appeared in October 10 issue of New Yorker.

It appears in the following sentence:

“In such a (depressed) situation, the economy could easily remain stuck in a rut, until some outside agency – the government was Keynes’s favored candidate – intervened and spurred spending.”

From the above context, I guess “remain (be) stuck in a rut” means “remains at the standstill” or “caught in quagmire.”

I consulted both Cambridge and Merriam-Webster Dictionary to make sure of my interpretation, neither of which has entry of “ stuck in a rut,” while the former carries “stuck in a groove” with definition, “to be bored because of doing the same thing for long time".

As I checked Google Ngram, emergence of both phrase of “stuck in a groove” and “stuck in a rut” were already observed in mid 1800s, but the usages of “stuck in a groove” picked up in and after 1940s and “stuck in a rut” in early 1960s.

I wonder why “stuck in a rut,” of which usage is notably on increase for a half century is not registered in both well-known dictionaries (maybe I should ask this to the editors of both dictionaries, not EL&U users)? Hasn’t it still acquired enough currency as an idiom?

If my interpretation of “stuck in a rut” “ as “remains at standstill” is in groove or passable, why the meaning of “stuck in a “rut” and “groove” turns out different even though using a similar “track” concept? Or, are they interchangeable?

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2 Answers 2

These metaphoric usages are similar, but not identical. Stuck in a rut refers to a wagon wheel getting stuck in the rut (deep channel) created by earlier wagons passing over soft ground. It's more about being bogged down / unable to move, rather than forced to remain on a fixed path.

Stuck in a groove refers to the needle (stylus) of a record-player. Those of us old enough to remember that technology will recall vinyl discs with scratches / cigarette burns. At a standard 33rpm turntable speed, you'd get the same 2 seconds repeated as the needle reached the damaged part of the inward spiral, and was bumped outwards on each revolution. Reflecting that, the metaphoric usage of OP's example always implies repetition.

My Chambers defines in a rut as following a tedious routine from which it is difficult to escape. Note that this is widely understood even without the word "stuck", or any special context. Few dictionaries would define stuck in a groove; the imagery is transparent, and it's not very common.

So the economy is stuck in a rut doesn't imply anything repeating - just that economic indicators remain at low levels (down in the rut); they can't "break free" and rise to a higher level.

If you say someone's in a groove with no other context, you might mean he's daydreaming, wholeheartedly enjoying something, or in the zone, rather than trapped in tedious repetition. You really need the word "stuck" to clarify the meaning.

In short, rut has greater applicability, in that it's not restricted to "cyclical" or "boring" contexts.

Here's an NGram showing that [stuck] in a rut is the more common form. Many of the relatively small number of instances of stuck in a groove are either unrelated literal usages, or they explicitly explain the metaphor. It's already a fading metaphor anyway, since we don't use records and needles any more. enter image description here

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"In a groove" sounds like a metaphor for the needle on a vinyl record. It sounds positive or enjoyable to me, and "stuck" doesn't sit right with it. –  Andrew Vit Oct 31 '11 at 7:48
    
@Andrew: Yes, as implied in my answer, some of the NGram results for in a groove mean in the zone / on a winning streak. Usually that meaning is in the groove, but it's so strongly-associated it overrides the "rut" meaning unless the word "stuck" is explicitly present. –  FumbleFingers Oct 31 '11 at 13:15

I would have to say that your interpretation, while reasonable, is a bit off the mark.

"Stuck in a rut" and "stuck in a groove" mean the same thing. (You will have to complain to the dictionary editors if you want the 'rut' version to be added, though; nothing we can do about that. :-) )

The definition you listed, "to be bored because of doing the same thing for a long time", is almost what you need; it's not necessarily about being bored but about recognizing that you have been doing essentially the same thing for a long time. If the economy is stuck in a rut, then we are recognizing that the economy is performing today the same as it has every day for the last couple of years, which in this case is 'very badly, hardly moving at all'.

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I listed two interpretations of mine about “stuck in a rut,” i.e., “remains standstill” or “caught in quagmire”. The latter would sound too bleak, and therefore off the mark. But by “remains at standstill,” I meant it “economic situation doesn’t change (move) from the previous sluggish stage (or phase). Isn’t it almost same as your definition, “the economy is performing today the same as it has every day for the last couple of years”? –  Yoichi Oishi Oct 31 '11 at 3:57

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