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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

get into the weeds

(2000’s | bureaucratese? journalese? | “go into detail,” “sweat the small stuff,” “dig deeper”)

I have to confess I wasn’t familiar with this expression, but it was ably urged upon me by Lovelies Martha and Liz from Queens, who between them pretty much wrote the entry, or would have if my memory were better. As it is, they bear responsibility for the accuracies and the good stuff, and I get the blame for everything else.

Not especially common, the phrase has something a bit elitist about it, a direct legacy of its earliest occurrences in the corridors of power. The first use I found in LexisNexis attributed it to Bill Clinton in a one-on-one meeting with Boris Yeltsin in October 1995, and when it turned up after that, it was usually in the mouth of a powerful public official. By now it has spread beyond that narrow band, but I sense that it has remained largely outside demotic vocabulary. Actually, the earliest search result from LexisNexis yielded a quite different application; a Republican Congressional official in 1998 invoked the gentlemanly nature of competitions for House leadership by saying, “You don’t get into the weeds here.” No throwing mud or alley-cat tactics. That strikes me as a perfectly sensible definition of this rather odd phrase, but it has not caught on.

Instead, it generally seems to imply an arduous and vaguely unpleasant task, and in fact it is used strikingly often in the negative (“We don’t need to get into the weeds here”) to mean “I’ll spare you the complexities” or “Let’s not lose sight of the big picture,” which is how Clinton used it in 1995. Only geeks and specialists need understand the underpinnings. Sometimes it suggests undue effort, or even frustration, but that doesn’t seem predominant. Because of its firm association with the will not to overlook anything, it turns up occasionally as a synonym for “micromanage.”

I find it edifying to ponder briefly the usual connotations of “weeds.” (Not “weed,” which has replaced “pot” as the standard kids’ word for marijuana.) When you’re not using an archaic phrase to denote widows’ garments, they are unwanted plants that compete with or endanger whatever you’re trying to coax out of the soil. They are not pleasing to look at, spread way too fast, and require toil to uproot. So it makes sense that “get into the weeds” implies unwelcome effort. The most common shading I found in my researches is “get lost or tangled up in complications that ultimately doesn’t make that much difference.” That connotation gives the phrase the power to distract from or obscure genuine wrongdoing; sometimes “let’s not lose sight of the big picture” means “let’s not hold anyone responsible for what happened.” But the phrase has avoided degeneration into a synonym for “cover up,” and it remains a bureaucrat’s or academic’s way of saying “delve into the minutiae.” Sometimes you need to do that in order to get to the heart of the matter, but you’re probably not going to enjoy it.

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