Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are OPEN.

We deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your comments frequently make an invaluable contribution to the story of words and phrases in everyday usage over many years.

Please note that comments are moderated, and will sometimes take a few days to appear.



shameless pleading





Getting into the Weeds

There be snakes.

Dear Word Detective: The phrase “getting into the weeds” is widely used to mean “getting into the details,” often with the inference of getting into too much detail. I have a guess about the origin of this phrase which is that it comes from harvesting. If you’re “getting into the weeds” your machine or tool is going closer to the ground than necessary to get most of the grain and is picking up weeds along with the crop. But I haven’t been able to confirm this notion or find any other ideas about the origin of the phrase. — Lynda.

At last, a question I feel uniquely geographically qualified to answer, living, as we do, surrounded by soybean, corn and wheat fields stretching to the horizon. And the answer is: What weeds? Maybe you haven’t kept up with modern agriculture, but farmers today spray such a potent cocktail of pesticides and herbicides on their “Roundup Ready” genetically-modified crops that the only “weeds” in those fields (mostly in corn fields, for obvious reasons) were planted on purpose by guys with ponytails who like to work at night.

So I doubt that farming is the source of “getting into the weeds,” especially given that the saying has really only become popular in the last six or seven years. If the phrase had come from agriculture, it almost certainly would have appeared long ago. But “into the weeds” now seems to be very, very popular, to the point where it earned its own article in the Christian Science Monitor in 2008. That article, in turn, heavily relied on an immensely helpful 2006 post on the excellent linguistics blog Language Log by Mark Liberman, who did some solid research on the phrase.

There seem to be two different uses of “getting into the weeds” out there in the wild. One is the “getting into too much (possibly irrelevant) detail” sense that you mention. This is evidently a very popular figure of speech among policy wonks, beltway insiders in Washington, D.C., and savvy observers such as Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, who has frequently used the phrase in his articles. The other sense is a restaurant term invoked when the staff is overworked, everything is going wrong, and total chaos is only a burnt fillet of sole away. Back in 2000 there was actually a Molly Ringwald movie about the staff of a restaurant dealing with a bad night called “In the Weeds.”

My initial suspicion about “into the weeds” was that it had something to do with a golf ball landing in the “rough” (long grass), making it hard to extract without falling behind. I tend to think that golf is indeed the source of this sense of “getting into the weeds” meaning “losing control and being overwhelmed.” Other possible sources that have been suggested include a swimmer becoming tangled in seaweed and a boat having its propeller snarled by weeds in a lake.

But as Mark Liberman points out, the use of “into the weeds” to mean “delving deep into the details” doesn’t carry the same sense of painful confusion as the restaurant use, and such “weed wandering” is actually the sort of thing true policy wonks enjoy. As he says in his Language Log post, “The metaphor here seems to be that when you wander off the beaten path, you can explore arbitrary amounts of not-very-valuable intellectual foliage (“weeds”) without getting closer to your conceptual destination.” I think that image of “wandering off the beaten path to examine interesting details along the way” is the key to this sense of “getting into the weeds.”

Of course, some tasks actually require “getting into the weeds,” dealing with small but important details, such as the minutiae of financial or legislative analysis (“A panel of lawmakers is starting to ‘get into the weeds,’ as one state senator put it, and are hoping to write first drafts of possible new laws by the end of the summer addressing Montana’s wide-open medical marijuana scene,” Missoulian, 6/28/10). This sense of “getting into the weeds” would thus lie midway between the terror of a bad night as a waiter and the policy wonk’s eager embrace of statistical trends. Sometimes wandering around in the weeds is just all in a day’s work.

20 comments to Getting into the Weeds

  • Elizabeth Lightwood

    “Into the weeds” is an unfortunate phrase to use in the context of medical marijuana.

  • […] weeds’ come from and does it mean what I think it means?” A short search found this site, The Word Detective, and an illuminating description of the phrase. It’s interesting that this metaphor came up for […]

  • Mark

    As a career fine-dining server, I always assumed the phrase suggested the idea that the person in question was so overwhelmed that the metaphorical “weeds” had sprung up around them, diminishing their ability to accomplish tasks quickly. I have also heard it described as a state of affairs in which one has several tasks that need to be completed simultaneously, but with little or no time to do so (often because of short-sightedness or carelessness).

  • After I referenced your post in a discussion of “getting into the weeds” today, one of my readers offered this comment:

    “Acadian French uses a (so far as I know) unique expression: Dans la rhubarbe. (Literal translation: In the rhubarb) It means someone who has “gone off the deep end”, to use an English equivalent. Also sometimes used to describe someone who has lost sight of their goal due to getting sidetracked by minutiae.”

    I don’t know if it predates or postdates the English use of the term.

  • […] does “in the weeds” mean?   I mean off track and overwhelmed in this […]

  • […] a long way – but it still ended badly.  From my side, pick your catch phrase.  I was down in the weeds too far.  I had my head in the sand and didn’t do everything I could to expand myself and […]

  • […] could be that you’re gotten down in the weeds too quickly and stayed there too long. Details are not particularly interesting to listen to anyway, […]

  • Darel

    As a real farmer that grows actual food, I have no experience with the aforementioned row crops. That just doesn’t seem like farming to me. Out here we do have weeds. Lots of weeds. When we say we’re in the weeds, we mean that they have gotten away from us, that we didn’t hoe or otherwise cultivate enough when the weeds were just germinating and we may not be able to catch up. We’re so far behind that the weeds may overtake us and we may even lose a crop. In the weeds. Makes me shudder.

  • MG66

    I first heard “in the weeds” at my first waiting gig. It meant you were super insane busy. “How you doing Mike?” “Totally in the weeds–just got triple sat and my 6 top thinks they are the only people here!” This is usually said fast and on the move. The upside to in the weeds was when the place was hopping and you had no time for chit-chat, you were making money: “How’s your night?” “Dude,so far deep in the weeds I am building a cabin.”

    I started waiting table in the late 80s. Now, I only hear the term used by other professionals who, like me, worked their way through college and grad school waiting tables. When they (we) say it now, it still means too busy to breathe. Non-former waitstaff don’t get the reference.

    I have never heard it used to mean getting too into the details (as an editor we called that grooving on the minutiae) but perhaps someone who did not get there reference but saw that people were busy attached the term into drilling down into the work.

  • Robert Simpson

    Might not it have originated in the 19th century where the wearing of mourning garments was referred to as the weeds? “In the weeds,” though I haven’t found this phrase in the literature, would mean being “in mourning.”

  • RDSouth

    I thought it came from helicopter pilots. When they fly very low they can see the ground in great detail, but if they go so low that they are in the weeds, then they get bogged down. This was adapted to briefings, where subordinates who go into too much detail, when what was wanted was an executive summary, are told “I don’t want to get into the weeds on this.”

  • Brian D Collins

    I have worked in the restaurant/bar business in New York (city and state)since the late 1960s. The first time I ever heard the phrase “in the weeds” used was in the kitchen of Newman’s Pier Three restaurant in Guilderland, NY in the late 1970s. Ed Newman, the owner and chef, was an avid, if apparently not particularly good, golfer and the phrase came about as the staff’s way of describing problems in the kitchen: “Chef’s in the weeds, again.” Or so I was told at the time by the folks who were working there when I arrived. Of course, the staff may have been pulling the leg of the newbie and taking credit for a phrase that had come from elsewhere, but I do remember having to ask what the phrase meant, not having heard it before.

  • DJP

    I’ve used the term for thirty years or so and have no idea from whence it came, certainly not kitchens. My wife aske me to explain the term and it was the “off the beaten track, struggling to make progress and find firm footing” type of answer (similar connotation to “walking through mud”)carrying an inference of being aware of your own lack of progress. Recently I came across an almost identical term (close enough given it was a translation)quoted in a Chinese Buddhist reference from about 1,000 years ago. Close enough for me to suspect the golf, kitchen and outboard motor theories may have come at a later date..

  • Cliff

    I do know how when and where the original “in the weeds” came from.

    It’s been used in so many context. A wonderful description of “oh shit” that originated in restaurants in the early 80s.. specifically.. Damon’s. In Florence Kentucky.. on mothers day.
    The day was unbelievably busy. The manager asked the kitchen manager how was the line going… a novel reader.. completely focused on his hundreds of orders in front of him..was totally thrown by the question.. instead of asking are you nuts.. don’t speak to me.. don’t distract me.. his mind clicked to the old can’t see the forest from the trees.. but the words did not come out.. instead.. he said
    I’m in the weeds.
    I know.. I was there.. and over the years have been amazed whenever I hear the phase… used in all different environments.. but still keeping the core.. of.. oh boy..this isn’t good..

  • Greg Dupuich

    I believe I heard this years ago at an oval track stockcar race, “he was in the weeds” (not on the track)

  • ccziv

    I wonder if the popular TV show “Weeds” has this meaning as a double entendre? (sp?)

  • Lance

    Since there are six or seven possible meanings, and this phrase is used for almost any reason, it is meaningless.

  • Sue Schofield

    As a matter of fact ‘getting in the weeds’ did indeed start around the early 70’s used as a means of asking for help by waitresses and waiters serving dinners, overwhelmed by the chaos of waiting on up to six or more parties. Your mind can only balance so much, and this was an urgent call for help. I can confirm this as we at Valles Steak House (Rochester NY) were possibly the first to coin the phrase. Since that time I was surprised to hear that phrase from a few sources, one of which a Congressman.

  • Brian D. Collins

    @Sue Schofield: I worked in the Albany Valle’s around ’75-’77. There was a steady flow of cooks back and forth between Valle’s and Newman’s Pier Three where I worked for maybe 6 or 8 months around ’77, ’78. (see above) While I don’t remember hearing the phrase at Valle’s Albany originally, it took root there soon after. There was a lot of moving around in the Valle’s chain, especially among assistant managers; it would not surprise me to learn that the phrase had flowed in either direction.

  • Mnobuzzz

    Every time I hear the phrase “getting into the weeds” I think of angling and boating. If you are boating with a motor with a propeller, you are in a bit of trouble when you are in the weeds because your prop gets full and you have to stop everything or you will be stuck. Same with fishing, if you are in the weeds and your line is tangled, you can’t catch anything, your bait is cover. I guess you can also say the same thing of swimming, you are screwed if you get caught in the weeds, you can drown. whether it is boating, fishing or swimming, it’s a simple metaphor that represents being in trouble, caught into something unpleasant.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




Makes a great gift! Click cover for more.

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!