May 08, 2006

Deep in the Hookergate weeds

I'm a regular reader of Joshua Micah Marshall's Talking Points Memo, and you should be too if you're at all interested in American politics or in American political language. Last September, I commented on his use of the word "parse". In one of yesterday's items it was the phrase "deep in the weeds" that got my attention:

You've got to be relatively deep in the "Hookergate" weeds to follow this one. But Newsweek has now positively identified the CIA party-attender "Nine Fingers" as Brant Bassett, ex-CIA official and former Goss Hill staffer.

That "deep in the 'Hookergate' weeds" phrase is quintessential TPM, I thought to myself. But I know that I'm no more immune to the linguistic "frequency illusion" than anyone else is, so I thought I'd check. Searching for {weeds} on the TPM site, I found five additional examples:

(May 04, 2006) Okay, this one will go a little deep in the weeds. But bear with me because I think it'll shed a bit of light on the amount of due diligence the Department of Homeland Security did on Shirlington Limo ...
(Feb. 15, 2006) These [sic] gets fairly deep into the weeds of the Whittington case. But one point that garnered a lot of discussion yesterday was just how the birdshot got lodged in or near Whittington's heart.
(July 18, 2005) This point is admittedly very deep in the weeds. But if you're playing the Rove/Plame/Niger sleuth game like many of the rest of us, it's a significant point.
(July 17, 2004) This post will take us admittedly deep into the weeds of the Iraq-Niger saga. But if you can handle the detail, let's proceed. As we've noted several times recently, both the Senate intel committee report and the recent "Butler Report"...
(May 17, 2004) Policy wonks may get into studies about money put into security at America's major seaports or what the president is doing to get the FBI into shape to combat terror. But that's deep in the weeds where few non-policy wonks venture.

Do six uses of a phrase in two years count as "quintessential"? Well, I've observed before that a word or phrase may only need to be repeated a couple of times in order to seem characteristic of a writer or speaker, if the use in context is striking enough. In this case, five of the six TPM uses of "deep in the weeds" are used to introduce a post, as part of a ritualized warning to the reader that the content will involve a level of detail that some may find excessive.

In comparison, the phrase "deep in the weeds" has never been used on Language Log, on Language Hat, on the Volokh Conspiracy, on Crooked Timber, etc., although these blogs are more often deep in (what some might consider) the intellectual weeds than not.

DITW is of course not unique to TPM. Even the ritual-excuse usage can be found elsewhere on the web, e.g. in Margaret Warner's 10/17/2003 conversation with William Safire on PBS NewsHour:

We're getting deep in the weeds here, but let's go on to the U.N. vote yesterday, Bill.

This suggests an inside-the-beltway thing, and there are plenty of other examples from political language:

Word is spreading among NAPUS Legislative Activists that Congress is already communicating with them on some “deep-in-the-weeds” postal reform issues.
If you get deep in the weeds of how pollution markets function, you come to understand that they can be a remarkably effective tool for reducing emissions...

But plenty of non-political types also use "get (or be) deep in the weeds" meaning "to deal with a topic at a remarkable and perhaps excessive level of detail":

I don't want to get too deep in the mathematical weeds (which look like little, green integral signs), but there's an equation governing gas pressure called Gay-Lussac's Law. To really boil it down, pressure P is equal to a constant k times temperature T: P = k • T.
Without getting too deep in the technical weeds, the technology involved the easy movement of electronic data.
Without getting too deep in the weeds, dogmas are simply values or principles that cannot be proven, but that we accept as true or divinely decreed (and therefore true).
Yeah, you know you're deep in the meta weeds when you can't write a story summary that is coherent and useful and shorter than the story itself.
I didn't want to get too deep in the weeds, and was only trying to give the poster a general idea of why he didn't need a "neutral" on a 240V load.
I don't want to get too deep in the weeds on this histogram thing.
I am also very concerned when accounting firms suggest that they were making materiality determinations at the segment, interim financials level. This is much too deep in the weeds. Materiality assessments need to be made on an enterprise basis at the annual period level.

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. (Many of the literal uses of "(deep) in the weeds" involve fishing, for reasons that are obvious to any fisherman. However, the fishing context doesn't seem to play a role in the development of the metaphors here, as far as I can see.)

There's another metaphorical use of "in the weeds" -- maybe even commoner -- that has a different meaning, clearly explained by Chris DeLorenzo in a May 2 blog post:

Anyone who's been a waiter at a busy restaurant for any length of time surely knows what I'm talking about. It's a dream where you find yourself "in the weeds" (waitering term meaning so busy and behind that your head spins a la The Exorcist), so deep in the weeds that there doesn't seem any way out, that all is hopeless, and that with each passing moment the weeds get thicker and thicker.

There are plenty of other examples on the web of this waiter-specific "in the weeds", with or without "deep":

Back when I was still cooking, we had a favorite phrase, deeply treasured, to describe a guy (usually a young guy, usually on his first or second night working fryers or garde manger) who was so far down that he could no longer see beyond the next ticket. When he was flustered, when he'd lost the long view and had that white-eyed, glassy stare that signals the onset of total adrenaline burnout, he was "shitting dandelions," as in, "Check out Bob. Motherfucker's so deep in the weeds he's shitting dandelions."
On a recent hectic Saturday night, our food arrived with dispatch but our overburdened server was so deep in the weeds that we endured long waits for everything from chips for our appetizer dips to cream for our coffee.
The waitstaff were so deep in the weeds that they started speaking in tongues.

An online "Waiter's Glossary" also gives the derived form weeded:

1} To have to much to do. 2} To not be able to keep up or accomplish all the tasks set before you. 3} A feeling or act of being behind in one's work. 4} A very bad place. i.e. "I have too many tables, I'm very weeded!"

By 2000, the phrase "in the weeds" was mainstream enough to become the title of a movie starring Molly Ringwald and Eric Bogosian, among others, and described on IMDB as "a mediocre ensemble dramady repartee-fest about the staff of a restaurant and their activities during one night's dinner rush".

You can also find extensions of the restaurant sense to other cases of over-scheduling:

The soup recipe (Boston Globe) called for six cups of chicken stock. My stock supply is terribly low, and it being a Friday (and my schedule being already deep in the weeds at breakfast) there was no time for proper stock.
BAM!... your boss cheerfully dumps several more confusing, time-sensitive projects in your lap and you're deep in the weeds again.

Note that this is a rather different meaning from the one we started with. Josh Marshall goes deep in the weeds because he's enjoying himself, following story leads into a thicket of details. He's in control, even if he worries that his readers may not want to follow all his excursions. A waiter in the weeds, in contrast, is tangled, hindered, and overwhelmed.

Some examples seem to be in between the Good Weeds ("pursuing details") usage and the Bad Weeds ("overwhelmed by demands") usage: a Neutral Weeds use, meaning something jlike "busy with details":

I was deep in the weeds trying to debug the Skycam control loop. Having no other option, I was about to try some Trial and Error debugging when a teammate suggested that we take a close look at my Drum Circumference Parameter.
We've been working very hard on content for the show, and we're pretty deep in the weeds of it right now.
I'm deep in the weeds of building a really nice Tournament Tracker and Online Fishing Logbook ...
My friends Winnie and Chris are deep in the weeds of wedding planning and Blue Hill at Stone Barns was a contender.
Haven’t posted in a while because I’m deep in the weeds on a project.
I apologize, but there's a good reason for this lack of content: I've been deep in the weeds on a cover story about cute, diseased puppies and the kind people who adopt them from the pound during the holiday season.
I am way too deep in the weeds of my book to offer further extended thoughts on what we can now fairly call the Rove-Plame affair.

Another way to think about this is that there are many different sorts of reasons why someone could wind up "in the weeds", as well as different evaluations (perhaps by different people) of the costs and benefits of being there. These distinctions start out as inevitable parts of the story we can make up for ourselves around the concept "in the weeds" -- but as some particular patterns of use become common, certain sets of story lines congeal into "senses".

[Update: Grant Barrett's Double-Tongued Word Wrester Dictionary has an entry for "weeded", with citations from 1995. One of Grant's citations suggests a swimming metaphor: "As in 'in the weeds' like you're 'swimming' (another useful bit of nomeclature for the same thing) in a lake, and being tangled in seaweed."

Grant himself suggests (by email) that golf is another source for the expression "in the weeds", which makes sense.]

[And Jonathan Lundell writes that "My first recollection of the phrase "in the weeds" is in connection with sports car racing, as term for going off-course".]

[Chris Brew contributed a similar-but-different herbage idiom from across the pond:

Joshua Micah Marshall's weeds phrase somewhat resembles "kicked into the long grass", which is an "inside the M25" phrase for placing a ticklish issue on one side by sending it to some glacially slow committee.

The metaphor must be something to do with soccer, but I'm not totally clear on how that works. Unless the grass is very long, I doubt whether the ball would be as lost as typical usages imply. You'ld just go and find, it not wait ten years and never get back to it.

Chris also sent a link to an article in The Times ("The long grass") whose punning headline seems to use this idiom to the subvert the author's meaning, which was to call sincerely for "a truly comprehensive review of cannabis policy". On the other hand, the last paragraph does start by observing that "Mr Clarke has kicked this controversy into the long grass. The review he has commissioned will not even start until almost a month after polling day." ]

[Rich Alderson explains that

Chris Brew's idiom "kick it into the long grass" is golf-derived, essentially describing a form of cheating: A player whose ball lands in the rough so as to be unplayable without adding multiple strokes to the hole can cheat by kicking the ball out-of-bounds into the really long grass and take a one-stroke penalty for a lost ball.

The metaphor here would be that the ticklish issue gets lost, and we play with a different issue altogether (the new ball).


Posted by Mark Liberman at May 8, 2006 11:00 AM