"The Agency's performance and various measures adopted to manage the temporary increase in certain types of trafficking, in particular that of cereales". I checked COLLINS, the only dictionary where I found a definition of the word trafficking but it seems to corroborate the meaning of illegal activity.

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    Hello, aissam. Can you provide a link to the original, and an attribution, please? If DIY, answers here will probably be opinion-based. But the spelling of 'cereales' hints at a historical source. I'd say that historically, the drugs / people / contraband connection was not present, but it's at least very strongly suggested nowadays. Commented May 25, 2021 at 10:09
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    ... Some dictionaries, for the base-form of the verb traffic, give only the illicit subsense, while others omit this or add a caveat. But I'd say that the 'gerund' (trafficking) relates far more often to the criminal domain. What proportion of the first 50 say hits on Google are definitely non-criminal? And if one filters out 'human' and 'drugs'? 'Sex', 'child' and 'gun'? We seem to be left with illicit wildlife, shellfish, parrot, contraband ... Wait a second! Protein and signaling receptor! The microbiology domain is also a player. Commented May 25, 2021 at 10:42
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    Regarding the specific sentence, more information is used. It's impossible to fully judge your sentence without knowing the context, e.g. what the agency is and what the measures are, and what you mean by "cereales" which isn't an English word. Since the sentence appears not to be written by an English speaker, or to have been machine-translated, we can't judge a lot about the implications.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 25, 2021 at 11:47
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    Very different questions can be behind asking whether a word can mean something. If the question here is 'Can I use the word in this way and still be understood?', the answer is 'Yes, if the context makes it clear what was intended, as in the example about cereals'. If the question is 'Can I use the word in this way without my audience perceiving its use as awkward and being distracted by it?', the answer is 'No'.
    – jsw29
    Commented May 25, 2021 at 16:14
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    Unfortunately most free online dictionaries are notoriously abbreviated. This in-turn leads to many sincere questions like yours and many needless arguments in various forums about the usage of various words with respect to their less common meanings. I wish I could point you to a more complete online dictionary that is also free, but I gave up years ago and just use my printed Webster's unabridged instead. Commented May 26, 2021 at 13:46

2 Answers 2


You should avoid the use of "to traffic" in reference to legal commerce.

The use of "to traffic" in reference to legal trading has declined, and is now all but obsolete or regional:

The OED explains:

Traffic (v.) 1.a. intransitive. To engage in trade or commerce, esp. between one country, region, or community and another; to buy and sell, or barter, goods or commodities; to trade. Also occasionally: to travel for the purpose of trade.

Now rare and chiefly historical.

[...] With the increasing dominance in the 20th cent. of the senses relating to illegal or illicit trade [...], this sense and others relating to lawful or acceptable trade generally declined [...]. However, this sense is still current in the Caribbean with reference to legitimate trading between the Caribbean Islands and neighbouring territories in agricultural produce and household goods (see quot. 1990 and cf. trafficker n. 1a).

1773 J. Hawkesworth Acct. Voy. Southern Hemisphere II. i. ix. 93 They trafficked with us for cocoa-nuts and other fruit.

1990 M. Lagro & D. Plotkin Agric. Traders of St. Vincent & Grenadines ii. 11 The number of traders appears to have declined as older traders who had been trafficking for many years have dropped out.

2b. intransitive. With in. To trade in or procure human beings for the purpose of slavery or exploitation; (in later use esp.) to relocate people forcibly or illegally from one country or region to another, typically for coercion into prostitution, forced labour, or other forms of exploitation. Later also transitive with person as object [...].Originally perhaps simply a contextual use of sense 2a, but from the early 20th cent. emerging as a distinct sense.

1817 Trewman's Exeter Flying-post 6 Mar. It is made a felony, subject to 14 years' transportation, for any person to be trafficking in Slaves.

2016 J. A. Reid et al. in J. A. Reid Human Trafficking v. 79 The victim was trafficked by her father and exploited by other men when she was a preadolescent.

c. transitive. To trade or deal illegally or illicitly in (something); (now esp.) to transport (officially controlled or stolen goods or substances) from one country or region to another in the course of illegal trade. Also (and earliest) intransitive, chiefly with in.

Apparently originally used with reference to illicit trading within prisons, and gaining currency in the second half of the 20th cent.**

1896 Islander (Friday Harbor, Washington) 21 May He has made open charges to the board of directors, that employes of the prison are trafficking in the drug.

2013 Small Arms Surv.: Everyday Dangers iv. 93 Western Balkans, the Russian Federation, and Eastern Europe are key sources of firearms trafficked into the EU.

  • Good answer and pertinent to the OP. But we can traffic in things other than goods / arms etc. Saying that some website or news source "traffics in rumor and innuendo" (or similar) doesn't imply that the source is doing something illegal / illicit. Maybe I'm just old.
    – Jim Mack
    Commented May 27, 2021 at 15:52

I mostly agree with the answer provided by Greybeard; however, I believe the OED either is incorrect or misleading in the following sense (regarding the definition at 1.a.):

Traffick implies the transportation of a substance from one place to another (viz.: a person can traffick in soil, but cannot traffick in land).

This remains true even when relocated soil is used to "create land," as it is not actually land (which is defined by geospatial position) that is being created, but a firmament is being constructed where the "land" previously consisted in either air or water covering an underlying body of (dirt, rock, sand, etc).

Thus one can traffick in portable buildings (commonly: "a building intended to be transported via road") but — excepting sci-fi or supernatural ability — not in skyscrapers or stadiums.

These observations (supra) are consistent with the examples given in the citation.

Reclaiming words is a vital part of the author's role in protecting the transmission of intelligence across generations: obsessive expansion in some areas, contraction in other areas, and reimagination of words and their meanings ultimately renders written works unintelligible.

This is not to argue for a rigid list of words and corresponding definitions; however, it is to argue both for the preservation of words (even those not "politically correct") and historic meanings, and for the careful and non-frivolous modification of our language.

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    The verb is usually spelt traffic, the same as the noun (the k is only added before vowels, as e.g. trafficking and trafficked).
    – TonyK
    Commented May 26, 2021 at 10:53
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    You appear to be proposing an exercise in shoveling back the tide. Are you sure that's the best use of authors' time and effort?
    – zwol
    Commented May 26, 2021 at 15:20
  • For better or worse, the word (verb and gerund) used to mean this, but the old meaning got swamped with arms trafficking, drug trafficking, and latterly human/people trafficking, refugee trafficking. These usage now dwarf the old usages, so it's antiquated and has been lost to everyday discourse. It's a separate debate about who does/should get to change the language, whether that should in general be opposed, whether it's better to add more neologisms than repurpose existing words. This one seems allowable since we still have words like transport, trade, freight, deliver.
    – smci
    Commented May 26, 2021 at 20:37
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    ...meantime, advising the author to use the antiquated usage to fight the linguistic power seems like dangerous advice.
    – smci
    Commented May 26, 2021 at 20:39
  • Somewhat ironically, I'm more interested the phrase @zwol used above, "shovelling back the tide". I've never heard this term but it sure paints a picture. I ended up Googling it and was surprised that, although used a lot lately, the earliest usage I can find is 1995, in Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age" (full pdf). Is the term really that young?!
    – ashleedawg
    Commented May 27, 2021 at 3:49

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