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Earlier today, I used the phrase "picking up friction" thinking it was a common saying. Later intrigued by the possible history of the phrase, a Google search turned up pretty much no results for the phrase as I used it.

I consulted a friend who also believed the phrase sounded familiar, and agreed that the meaning went something like "to rise in popularity".

Ever since people realized how cute squirrels were, the squirrel market has been picking up friction.

Is there a reason as to why it feels completely natural for me to say it, and why other people may possibly understand it?

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    It sounds a lot like the more common idiom to gain traction or gaining traction. – Frank Sep 9 '14 at 9:38
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    Friction actually sounds like people are getting opposed to it. – mplungjan Sep 9 '14 at 9:41
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    The only context I could imagine the phrase being used is with the meaning sensing disagreement, as in I picked up some friction between them as soon as I went in. This is nothing like your meaning. – Colin Fine Sep 9 '14 at 15:31
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As the comments suggest, this is not a popular idiom, but more likely a Malopropism.

The way you define "picking up friction" makes me think it is a bastardization of

Gaining traction

(As @Frank stated) and

Picking up steam

both of which have the same meaning you apply to "picking up friction".

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As has been noted in previous comments etc, your phrase picking up friction is likely another form of the phrase gaining traction. However, previous mentions of this have lead to the erroneous conclusion that friction is somehow less positive than traction. While its connotation may, in fact, be that way in certain locales. Friction and traction are synonyms.

Whether you are picking up friction or gaining traction, you are doing the same thing.

It is true that the term friction is commonly used to note something that goes against popular opinion. It is also true that without friction it is impossible to have any traction (check a physics book if you won't take my word for it).

Of course I am referring to the literal meaning of both words and you may find that some circles of people will disagree with the connotation of the word. The word itself it plainly defined and you are using it correctly.

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